Suzu (voiced by Rena Nounen), an innocent eighteen year old girl, lives in wartime Hiroshima with her family. While prone to daydreaming and clumsiness, Suzu develops a talent for drawing pencil sketches that become her greatest joy. One day out of seemingly nowhere a young man Suzu barely knows arrives with a proposal of marriage. In an instant Suzu and Shusuku (Yoshimasa Hosoya) are married and she moves in with his parents. As Shusaku goes to work for the Japanese Navy, Suzu adjusts to a new life helping her new family survive the hardships wrought by the Second World War.
Adapted from the award-winning manga of the same name written and illustrated by Fumiyo Kono, In This Corner of the World is a heartrending and poetic wartime anime drama. Despite having its own unique tone the film is in the tradition of such alternately harrowing and lyrical war memoirs as Barefoot Gen (1983) and Grave of the Fireflies (1988). Here writer-director Sunao Katabuchi builds on the promise shown in his past works Princess Arete (2001) and Mai Mai Miracle (2009) and happily glosses over the anomaly that was Black Lagoon (2007). The plot interweaves episodes detailing the hardships suffered by ordinary working class Japanese during the latter half of the war with a more intimate story charting Suzu's spiritual growth. She is a heroine likely to endear herself as much to a foreign audience as the Japanese as she bumbles through various mishaps and social embarrassments, learning from her mistakes and slowly coming into her own in the face of extreme adversity. Suzu's artistic talent is a vital part of how she interacts with the world at large. Throughout the film Katabuchi utilizes Suzu's sketchbook flights of fancy as a poetic interpretation of daily rural life punctuated by the horrors of war. Most notably an air raid rendered from Suzo's point of view as splashes of vibrant colour on an azure canvas. The notion of art as an extension of the soul is also addressed when the film throws a gut-wrenching twist and we feel the impact of its loss.
In some quarters the film has been criticized for presenting a soft rose-tinted view of wartime Japan. To its credit In This Corner of the World never resorts to the muddled revisionism that mars Rail of the Star (1993). On observing Suzu is more reticent about marriage than the war effort and never questions why Hiroshima has to maintain a naval base at all, a few American critics pondered whether the characters are truly innocent or else willfully ignorant. Yet such criticism does not take into account the reality of Japanese society at the time. It seems plausible that a Japanese working class family mired in poverty and starvation and subject to the rigid social hierarchy of the time would choose to focus on those more immediate issues instead of the big picture.
While the story itself is fictional various episodes are based on factual incidents researched by Katabuchi and his team. Starting in the relatively tranquil atmosphere of the 1930s the film moves deeper and deeper into the turbulent Forties. Here Suzu and her new family are confronted with rationing, the difficulties of life under military rule, air raids and inevitably death. Without trivializing the weight of suffering endured during the war In This Corner of the World manages to deal with such tricky subject matter in a surprisingly buoyant and unconventional way. Take for example the scene where military police harshly reprimand Suzo for innocently sketching warships. What begins as a moment of suspense and public humiliation unexpectedly turns funny, endearing Suzu to her new family as she finally starts to feel at home. Among the most affecting scenes in the film are those showing the community rallying together in the aftermath of increasingly devastating air raids. These of course culminate in the dropping of the first atom bomb on Hiroshima on August sixth, 1945. In its aftermath the plot crafts a deeply Japanese cycle of death and rebirth, drawing a parallel between the collapse of Suzu's relationship with the family and its gradual revival alongside hope itself due to the steadfast resilience of the community.