Monday 17 February 2020

On demand: "In This Corner of the World"

It will find its own path out from under it, but a mushroom-shaped shadow hangs over the Japanese animation In This Corner of the World, and that shadow is Studio Ghibli's 1988 masterpiece Grave of the Fireflies, perhaps the landmark historical animation of our times. It opens as a study of a young country girl, Suzu (voiced by Rena Nounen in the original Japanese version, and by Ava Pickard and Laura Post in the English dub), coming of age in the Japan of the late 1930s and early 1940s: we watch quizzically as she's paired off in the most formal of fashions with a passing suitor, and absorbed into a household where she's expected to take over her ageing mother-in-law's domestic duties. This opening stretch is as alert to routine and ritual as any Ozu film, perhaps Corner's closest live-action equivalent, although director Sunao Katabuchi and co-writer Chie Uratani - adapting Fumiyo Kouno's serialised manga of the same title - are liberated enough to follow Suzu into the bedroom, where a staggeringly archaic-sounding discussion about some non-existent "umbrella" serves as code for the initiation of conjugal activity. The movie hinges not on these characters' actions, however, but on the proximity of this household to major 20th century events, situated as it is on the fringes of a certain Hiroshima. With that namedrop, a quarter of the way through In This Corner of the World's running time, a previously rather sweet and gentle film sends a palpable shiver down the viewer's spine.

For the most part, Katabuchi - like Kouno before him - is concerned with the details of everyday life in Japan before the wholesale destruction the A-bomb brought about. In this, Corner will remind Western (specifically British) viewers of Raymond Briggs' nuclear-era When the Wind Blows, though inevitably there are regional variations. Katabuchi lends dramatic weight to those slow, quiet early Forties afternoons that see Suzu sewing kimonos in her newfound hausfrau role, or watching increasingly big ships pull into the port her household overlooks. He's keen, too, to provide some context for that quietude - friends and neighbours emptying towns to work for the Navy, the imposition of emergency measures - and keen for us to recognise this as the calm before a gathering storm. Kouno's manga was, among other things, a treatise on how history can creep up on us, obliging us to reroute and adapt or die: this story's throughline isn't strictly the military build-up, which takes place somewhere over the heroine's horizon, but how a dreamy young woman is required by circumstance to become practical and self-sufficient, manning a herb garden and knocking up family meals out of whatever scant rations came to hand. The attention Katabuchi pays to a doorframe on which the heights of children are etched suggests how much humdrum personal growth like this was wiped out in and around Hiroshima, but the image also speaks to the possibility of renewal even in times of crisis: we first notice these etchings when they're set in place as part of an impromptu air raid shelter.

A surfeit of supporting characters means Corner goes some way beyond the typically Ghiblian simplicity of Fireflies' sibling bond, with gains and losses: both Kouno and Katabuchi seem acutely aware of how complicated life can be, especially when the war machine cranks up. What's most distinctive about their endeavours here, however, is how they fold animation itself into their frames. The teenage Suzu is introduced drawing scenes from her own inner and outer life - as Japanese schoolgirls of the time surely did - only for this pastime to be abandoned as a luxury once it becomes impossible, for a variety of reasons, to pick up a pencil; even so, this doesn't stop her from painting impressionistic frescoes in her imagination when a dogfight breaks out over the herb garden, nor from sketching reassuring portraits in the dirt of that shelter, temporary as these may be. The urge to create, to leave a mark of some kind, lives on, even - perhaps especially - on the eve of destruction; and if history teaches us anything, it's that such urges also reemerge in its wake, like the flowers inscribed on the film's title card, pushing upwards towards the light. Here, some seventy years after the horrors the film describes, Katabuchi takes up his pen, invests in the ink Suzu can't afford to buy on the black market, and paints a fuller, often deeply moving picture of this bleak moment in Japanese and human history. Blink away your tears, stick with it through the dreadful hardships the second half depicts, and you'll emerge with a stronger sense of why Japan has been such a peaceable nation ever since - and why its people have turned their efforts to animation, rather than annihilation.

In This Corner of the World is now streaming on Netflix.

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