Based on a Japanese manga written and illustrated by Fumiyo Kōno, the animated feature “In This Corner of the World” is an engrossing but sometimes jumbled adaptation by writer-director Sunao Katabuchi (“Mai Mai Miracle”).
Set during the period from 1935 to 1945, this film is first-rate when depicting domestic challenges in the life of its heroine Suzu Urano, but it is somewhat hollow when foreshadowing the atomic bomb that is about to be dropped on her hometown of Hiroshima.
“They called me a daydreamer,” Suzu says in her opening narration. The melody of what sounds like “O Come All Ye Faithful” plays as she floats down a river in a boat, and this produces a treacly feeling that is soon altered when Suzu describes white clouds overhead that are “drifting without joy…their emptiness I have within…will it ever be relieved?” Such an existential query belies the number of times Suzu is called “ordinary” by others in this movie.
There are moments when the sheer physical beauty of “In This Corner of the World” is bound to bring a smile to the face. The animation looks handmade and deceptively simple, and there is delicate coloring and a subtle three-dimensional quality to both people and objects. Tree branches here sometimes look more real somehow than real tree branches, and there are also effects of light that are very pleasing and lifelike.
At one point, Suzu holds a dandelion and blows on it, and we see the wispy white seeds float through the air. Shots like this are so pretty that Katabuchi might have held them even longer to really make them land, but this is a movie that is always barreling forward very quickly, sometimes charmingly and sometimes bewilderingly.
Most bewildering here is Suzu’s relationship with Shūsaku, the shy man who asks to be her husband after meeting her once. When she gets the offer, Suzu does not remember meeting him. She is told by her family that she does not have to accept his proposal, but Suzu does marry him and moves to the city of Kure, where Shūsaku lives with his own family. (“Marrying close to home lacks excitement” is one piece of advice she hears.)
Suzu’s wedding night with Shūsaku definitely seems to lack excitement, though we are never too sure about what they feel for each other. At one point after their marriage, Suzu and Shūsaku are caught kissing by others, and both of them blush. We hear gossip from their neighbors that he was “too frail” to fight as a soldier in the war, and that he might also be “too frail” for his marital duties.
When they are visited by her macho childhood friend Tetsu, it almost feels as if Shūsaku is pushing Suzu into bed with him, and this is complicated because Suzu does have feelings for Tetsu. The impression left here is that Shūsaku is too soft for Suzu and that Tetsu is too hard, and this makes her frustrated and angry. But there are times when she seems very happy with her new life, even though food rationing gets to be difficult and air raids get more and more frightening.
Throughout “In This Corner of the World,” Suzu is seen drawing whatever is in front of her on her sketchpad, and this has an appealing meta quality because she is in effect a drawing who is drawing a drawing. (This “frame within a frame” idea becomes particularly ominous when we see a large paintbrush suddenly start daubing in colors of bombs that are falling on the screen.) Katabuchi is constantly flashing dates at us that get more and more specific, like “December, 1944,” and then “March 19, 1945” until finally he is telling us the time of day as well as the month and date, and this heightens a sense of dread.
As things get bad in Kure, Suzu is told several times that she should go back to her home in Hiroshima, and of course we know what will happen if she does that. There comes a point when Suzu is stuck in a bomb shelter during a raid with a sweet young girl named Harumi, who cries, “I’m hot!” as the bombs fall. “Endure it,” says Suzu stoically.
“In This Corner of the World” falls rather flat whenever it tries to deal with World War II directly, but as a character study of a young Japanese girl in wartime it is often beguiling. It succumbs to evasiveness and sentimentality at the end, but this does not extinguish the memory of the many funny, touching, and captivatingly odd scenes that have come before.