Empire (Australasia) - - On Screen - DAN JOLIN

DI­REC­TOR Su­nao Katabuchi

CAST (VOICES) Non, Megumi Han, Yoshi­masa Hosoya, Nat­suki In­aba

PLOT Fol­low­ing the tu­mul­tuous life of Suzu (Non), touch­ing on her child­hood in 1930s Hiroshima and the early years of her ar­ranged mar­riage. Though the day-dreamy Suzu yearns to be an artist, both her do­mes­tic re­spon­si­bil­i­ties and the cli­max of World War II stand in the way.

ONE OF THE most dev­as­tat­ingly af­fect­ing por­tray­als of Ja­panese civil­ian life dur­ing World War II is, per­haps sur­pris­ingly, an an­i­mated film: Stu­dio Ghi­bli’s Grave Of The Fireflies. Since its re­lease in 1988, Isao Taka­hata’s de­pic­tion of the plight of two young, home­less sib­lings in 1945 shocked and im­pressed Western au­di­ences more used to their car­toon movies fea­tur­ing songs and talk­ing an­i­mals. It felt pow­er­fully unique. So com­par­isons with writer-di­rec­tor Su­nao Katabuchi’s In This Cor­ner Of The World, which also por­trays Ja­panese life un­der the shadow of Amer­i­can bombers, are in­evitable.

For­tu­nately for Katabuchi (who at the time of Grave’s re­lease was at Ghi­bli work­ing on Hayao Miyazaki’s Kiki’s De­liv­ery Ser­vice), his wartime nar­ra­tive matches up well to Taka­hata’s highly re­spected film, in terms of both qual­ity and clar­ity of vi­sion, but per­haps most im­por­tantly for its sheer emo­tional im­pact.

Based on a manga (by Fu­miyo Kono) and struc­tured like a di­ary, it is less a ‘war film’ than an episodic per­sonal nar­ra­tive. It is more about Suzu (voiced by ac­tor/model Non, aka Rena Nô­nen) deal­ing with home­sick­ness as a re­luc­tant 18-year-old newly-wed en­sconced with her young hus­band’s fam­ily in a new town than it is about air raids and bat­tle­ships at the docks. As the ti­tle sug­gests, this is a per­sonal and sub­jec­tive view of the world at a ter­ri­ble time; the per­spec­tive of a young woman forced by the ex­pec­ta­tions of her so­ci­ety to set aside her great­est love — paint­ing — to re­sign her­self to a life of house­hold chores.

Which isn’t to say the war is dis­tant back­ground, only that Katabuchi never puts it in front of his main char­ac­ter. In one beau­ti­ful scene, mil­i­tary po­lice find Suzu sketch­ing ships and ac­cuse her of spy­ing. They march her to her hus­band’s par­ents and tell them to keep her un­der sur­veil­lance; af­ter all, “daugh­ter-in-laws are still strangers”. For a mo­ment, you think Suzu will be pun­ished; then her in-laws burst out laugh­ing. She’s so ab­sent-minded, they say, the idea of her be­ing a spy is a joke.

So while Grave Of The Fireflies is pure tragedy, In This Cor­ner Of The World is far more ton­ally var­ied — like life it­self. Though its two-hour­splus run­ning time stretches its episodic for­mat to the limit, and its fidelity to the rhythm of Suzu’s life pushes it to the fringe of repet­i­tive­ness, the artistry and de­tail of Katabuchi’s hand-drawn an­i­ma­tion holds your eye, and your con­cern for Suzu never wa­vers. Of course, given the pre­cise lo­ca­tion of her ‘cor­ner of the world’, we know what it’s all build­ing up to — “What is that cloud?” some­one says as the in­evitable hap­pens. But thanks to Suzu’s quiet re­silience, and a strong dose of gal­lows hu­mour, you’ll also be smil­ing. Be­sides, as one im­pov­er­ished char­ac­ter drily quips while watch­ing the US oc­cu­py­ing forces pass by, cry­ing “is a waste of salt”.

VER­DICT A gor­geously ren­dered and deeply per­sonal por­trayal of a young woman’s life in the part of the world where his­tory’s great­est con­flict reached a dev­as­tat­ing con­clu­sion.

Sad times for Suzu.

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