Every year, on the evening of August 6th, the people of Hiroshima gather along the banks of the Ota River and light more than 10,000 paper lanterns as the final part of a deeply moving peace ceremony. The memorial event caps off a day of reflection that includes film screenings, musical performances, and a wide variety of different speeches. Hibakusha — survivors of the nuclear blasts — gather around the Atomic Bomb Dome, many of them joined by their children and grandchildren. One particularly animated man performs a parable about the horrors visited upon his hometown, while a British ex-pat translates his story into English for the foreigners in attendance. The atmosphere is solemn, but not somber. There’s good food. Even the tourists start to loosen up.
However, perhaps the most striking thing about how Hiroshima chooses to commemorate its defining tragedy is the way in which the city focuses on the future as much as it does on the past. In Japan, August 6th is a day about peace, but it’s also a day about prevention, and the difference between the two grows more palpable as you wander the area and engage in the various events. It’s unspeakably powerful to see people so constructively repurpose their grief (and also their guilt) into a rallying cry for a brighter tomorrow, to see them find light in a bottomless hole. Now, that power has been captured in a thoughtful new film.
A lushly animated historical drama about a young woman who comes of age during the tumult of World War II, Sunao Katabuchi’s “In this Corner of the World” is scattered and emotionally disjointed from start to finish, but few films have done so much to convey the everyday heroism of getting out of bed in the morning — not just surviving in the shadow of death, but living in it as well. Adapted from a manga by Fumiyo Kōno and telling a fictional story that’s shaped by rich period detail, the action begins in December 1933. A buoyant girl named Suzu (Non) ventures into downtown Hiroshima on a quest to find some treats for her siblings. “They’ve always called me a daydreamer,” she tells us in the first lines of the voiceover track that’s often substitutes for more coherent storytelling, but Katabuchi does a fine job of drawing out her overactive imagination.
The pre-war Japan that the film draws for its heroine is a wispy and idyllic place, an enchanted kingdom where “The Hallelujah Chorus” plays softly in the background and the skies look like they’ve been painted with watercolors (Katabuchi once served as an assistant director for Hayao Miyazaki, but his delicate style here more closely resembles the work of Ghibli co-founder Isao Takahata). At one point, Suzu looks at the ocean and imagines that the crest atop each wave is a white rabbit skittering atop the surface. She lives in a beautiful world, and thinks of it as an even more beautiful one. It’s no wonder she becomes a painter.
Suzu’s fancifulness isn’t diminished over the years. If anything, she’s so lost in thought that she barely even notices the war ships amassing in the harbor near her parents’ house. The year’s skip by until a quiet navy man named Shūsaku (Yoshimasa Hosoya) proposes to Suzu out of the blue in 1944. She agrees to marry him, and leaves her home in Hiroshima to live with Shūsaku’s family in the nearby port city of Kure. She’s only 18 at the time.
The rest of the film takes place in Kure as Suzu adjusts to life with her new husband’s family and everyone tiptoes towards the oblivion we know is waiting for them just around the bend. When Shūsaku gets drafted, Suzu is left to assume even more responsibility; she cooks and gets rations and even helps build an air-raid shelter without ever breaking her stride. These episodes aren’t particularly engaging on their own, and Katabuchi’s fragmented narrative instills a certain emotional remove from any of his characters, but there’s a quiet power in how Suzu just gets on with things (“You’re so ordinary,” someone tells her).
As the militarization ramps up and shells begin to pound against the distant shores, it can be hard not to feel as though we’re watching lobsters stew in a slowly boiling pot. But Suzu, as per usual, has another way of seeing things: “Even in war, cicadas cry and butterflies fly,” she says. The sun rises and sets. People are reunited with old loves, and fail to say the right things. To that point, a well-founded romantic subplot helps retain Suzu’s humanity and prevent her from seeming like a magical idiot or a propagandistic emblem of the Japanese spirit, which is particularly important for an animated movie in which even the adults are drawn to look like children.
This, mercifully, is not “Life Is Beautiful.” On the contrary, “In this Corner of the World” has such a muted emotional register that it can be difficult to suss out the basic facts about what’s happened. At one point, Suzu is involved in a fatal bombing that deprives our heroine of something that’s very important to her, but the movie so calmly internalizes its horrors that the following scene barely seems affected by the carnage.
Eventually, after what feels like a lifetime of dread, the bomb arrives. Everything about how Katabuchi handles the inevitable — including what it portends for his characters — comes as a surprise. The experience of witnessing the destruction through Suzu’s eyes doesn’t have the emotional impact that it should, but the film still earns the idea that she can look at it from her own unique perspective. The atrocity is unimaginable, even for someone of Suzu’s restless imagination, but it isn’t enough to extinguish her natural ability to see life for what it could be rather than merely what it is.
“You can’t lose your place in the world that easily,” she says, and the longer the movie goes on the more instructional those words become. It would be great if a story about imminent nuclear warfare didn’t feel quite this relevant, but it’s never been so inspiring (or so humbling) to be reminded of how easy it can be to eke some beauty out of the bleakness.
“In this Corner of the World” opens in theaters on August 11.