American audiences are used to seeing the events of World War II play out from the perspective of American forces battling out against the forces of Imperial Japan. Whether it be in films that were made in the midst of the war or more recent films such as Mel Gibson’s horrendous Hacksaw Ridge, there’s a tendency to portray the soldiers fighting on the Japanese side as an unrelenting horde, almost zombie-like creatures devoid of emotion that will fight to death even if the battle is clearly lost. Now American audiences can see an entirely different perspective of the war in the Pacific in Sunao Katabuchi’s animated tale In This Corner of the World. Based upon the manga by Fumiyo Kono, In This Corner of the World is a portrait of a family amidst a time of war and uncertainty rife with artistic flourishes that are often undermined by the film’s slow and deliberate pacing.
The film focuses on the journey of Suzu, a young Japanese girl who lives with her family in Hiroshima. When she learns that a young man has asked for her hand in marriage, the young woman accepts and relocates to the town Kere with her new husband Shusaku. She moves in with her new family along the coast, enjoying a majestic view of the ocean and the sky. However, the ongoing war looms over the events of her life like a darkened cloud. Her passion for drawing is mistaken as an act of espionage. Her old friend Tetsu is conscripted into joining the Navy. It’s not long before the tide of the war has shifted and her home is constant danger from American bombing raids. Things get even worse when, as we all know from history, the atomic bomb is dropped on Hiroshima.
As much as I am interested in history and varying perspectives of historic events, In This Corner of the World left a bit cold. To be clear, though, it’s not the film’s perspective that left me wanting but the manner with which the story unfolds and just how slowly it does unfold. For one, the conclusion isn’t exactly hidden. I believe even the most remedial history student might know what’s going to happen to Hiroshima, so it’s all a very long setup to a cataclysmic event that we all know is coming. Certain emotional elements of the story fail to leave much of an impact because there’s little to surprise the viewer. It doesn’t help either that film slowly plays out for over two hours. However, there are smaller, more personal moments that are much more effective because they play out on a different scale without foregone conclusions.
In This Corner of the World does benefit from some gorgeous hand-drawn animation that is a similar vein that you might find from Studio Ghibli. There’s an artistry on display in the visual style of the film that isn’t matched in its storytelling form. Sunao Katabuchi’s film is uneven but beautiful. It’s an animated film that is willing to look in corners of history that are often ignored and overlooked but fails to find an urgency in its story, especially as it plays out against the very broad backdrop of World War II. In This Corner of the World works best when its focuses on the smaller moments rooted in its characters and brought to life by the team of dedicated artists. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case in this lengthy tale of life during wartime.