Sunao Katabuchi’s In This Corner of the World follows two Japanese families living near Hiroshima throughout the 1930s and 1940s. At the center of the film, whose narrative is eerily freighted with the inevitable dropping of the atomic bomb, is Suzu (Non), a young dreamer who draws, paints, and helps her grandparents sell nori, spinning stories to her siblings of the monsters and adventurers she meets while peddling the seaweed in the city. At 18, Suzu is courted by Shusaku (Yoshimasa Hosoya), a young navy clerk who lives with his family in Kure City, near a port that’s populated by aircraft carriers and destroyers. Over the years, Suzu weathers a succession of tragedies, her oft-ridiculed absentmindedness revealing a reservoir of strength and kindness.
Katabuchi displays a vivid, shattering awareness of how domestic routines can spiritually ground one during a time of demoralizing chaos. Suzu’s imagination is understood to be her saving grace, and many of the film’s most moving passages are devoted to her mastery of the rituals of housework—from the preparation of rice to the alteration and creation of kimonos—which she informs with strands of her playful curiosity. As World War II grinds on and resources become scarce, Suzu experiments with spices and a technique of boiling rice that’s supposed to expand the individual grains, essentially making rice out of nothing. This fascinating grasp of detail grounds the film’s uplifting platitudes in the down-and-dirty quotidian of wartime extremis.
The film’s animation also evocatively reflects Suzu’s consciousness, resembling the watercolors that she paints of the port and the people who idle throughout the city. At times of strife, the image even approximates the primitive paintings that Suzu created as a young girl, echoing the woman’s remembrance of her past and, later, her attempts to utilize nostalgia as a soulful nourishment to get her through the seemingly endless air raids and the deaths and deformities they leave in their wake. In a chilling flourish, the atomic bomb is represented by a single white blip of the image—a blip that signifies the annihilation of most of Suzu’s family.
Though gorgeous, the animation also has a limitation that shackles the film in monotony. This kind of graceful, miniaturist, sketchbook aesthetic is wonderful for landscapes, particularly for casting warfare in an ironic sheen of beauty. But there’s little subtlety in the expressions of the human faces, which is a problem for a film with a deliberate pace and an episodic, consciously repetitive structure that courts transcendentalism in the key of Yasujirô Ozu’s cinema. Ozu’s films are powerful in part for their symphony of faces, which skillfully reveal a spectrum of emotions that are simultaneously explicit, contradictory and mysterious. By contrast, the faces of In This Corner of the World don’t tell us enough, and so the humans exist at a remove from the audience. There’s little sense of an evolution transpiring within Suzu, who remains so admirably optimistic and innocent that she becomes a little maddening—a bland doll lost within a haunting cacophony of violence.