This review is part of Ogiue Maniax’s coverage for Otakon 2017
Of the many Japanese creators who tackle the subject of Japan in World War II, manga artist Kouno Fumiyo has stood out perhaps more than any other over the past decade. Avoiding overt criticism of the war, she tells stories from intimate civilian perspectives instead of focusing directly on the horrors of war or the battles themselves. Her first notable work, Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms, is about how Hiroshima coped with the aftermath of the atomic bomb from the ground-level. Her second major title, In This Corner of the World, has now been made into a feature film, and the transition from page to screen captures the pain, nostalgia, and conflicted emotions of the wartime period in subtle yet profound ways.
Directed by Katabuchi Sunao (Mai Mai Miracle), ITCotW follows a young girl named Suzu, an airhead with a talent for art who grows up in 1930s-1940s Hiroshima City. As she reaches adulthood and moves to nearby Kure, her everyday life slowly changes, chipped away by the surrounding reality and the ever-encroaching war. She and her family make the best of their situation, able to smile and laugh even in the most dire situations, but the war takes its toll and truly tests Suzu’s ability to go on living.
Avoiding clear-cut criticism of Japan’s actions during WWII carries an enormous risk. Suzu, who lacks of education and tends to just go along with whatever happens to her, can be seen as a lack of critical examination of the war, as well as an overly idyllic portrayal of Japan at the time. However, the film uses both the surrounding environment and Suzu’s portrayal to show how, underneath the facade of imperial prosperity, lies the gradual degradation of what it means for the world to be “normal.” A trip to a school includes young girls singing propaganda, unaware of how it is indoctrinating them. When Suzu witnesses an aerial battle, she is shown imagining it as splashes of paint, the aesthetic beauty of it peering out before the harsh image of destruction returns her to reality.
ITCotW risks being interpreted as celebrating Japan’s glorious past, or at the very least portraying Japan and its citizens as mere victims of war instead of being a major player. The film does not address the atrocities Japan committed, nor does it ever show anything but the fight on Japanese soil. Yet I do not find the decision to avoid confronting such topics head-on to be a crime by omission. I think that, within Suzu and the other characters’ lack of extensive examination is an exploration of how even those who tried to live ignoring or being unaware of Japan’s position are ultimately thrust into it, whether they liked it or not. Not everyone has the strength to risk themselves challenging the establishment, but even those who try to go with the flow can find themselves challenging the tides in small ways.
Another aspect of the film is that it does not utilize the typical images of World War II. When the atomic bomb hits Hiroshima, it does not show the infamous mushroom cloud we all know. Moments later, they look towards Hiroshima, and at the cloud that has begun to lose its shape. The fact that most of the movie takes place outside of Hiroshima is also a clear intent to examine life in wartime outside of the expected locales.
As the film progresses, it moves from beautiful to hauntingly so, a reflection of how the characters, their world, and their sense of normality wear away. A major tragedy in the middle of the film brings about in Suzu a struggle to hold onto the things that have allowed her to take everything in relative stride. How she emerges from that challenge becomes itself indicative of a nuanced message about the perils of patriotism.