“First, toast and brown some rice. Add triple the amount of water and gently simmer… add miso and violets to yesterday’s sardine stew. Reheat rice on the stove.” So goes Suzu’s recipe for a special kind of wartime rice, designed to make the most of a dwindling supply of ingredients. It’s just one of many loving references to food and cooking in director Sunao Katabuchi’s animated period drama, In This Corner Of The World. It may be a simple meal, but if you’re watching the film on an empty stomach, it’s the kind of thing that’ll leave you profoundly hungry – at least, until the story takes a gut-wrenching turn.
This is far from the first animated film to take place either during or in the aftermath of World War II. Isao Takahata’s peerless Grave Of The Fireflies told the harrowing story of children affected by the firebombing of Tokyo; indeed, Studio Ghibli’s films in general are steeped in the cultural impact of WWII on Japanese culture, with My Neighbour Totoro, Pom Poko, The Wind Rises and From Up On Poppy Hill all exploring what the country gained and lost during its colossal post-war rebuilding project. Then there was Barefoot Gen and its sequel, which provided a nightmarish glimpse of the nuclear bomb that landed on Hiroshima in August 1945.
Like Barefoot Gen, In This Corner Of The World is based on a manga – this one by Fumiyo Kono,with the feature adaptation retaining its simple lines and sketch immediacy. Beginning in December 1933, In This Corner Of The World depicts the minutiae of life and culture in the run-up to the War: the ordinary life of a young girl who works as a seaweed picker, but harbours a burgeoning talent for art and cooking.
Suzu’s artistic streak is brilliantly folded into the narrative itself; isolated moments, whether they’re the story’s from a child’s imagination or the horror of seeing bombs fall on a Hiroshima harbour, are brought to life with scratchy pencil drawings or Van Gogh-like dabs of paint.
In narrative terms, the focus on the mundane everyday might seem a little overplayed at first, but when war inevitably breaks out, the ground-level focus on ordinary people, what they eat and how they interact, has a satisfying and deeply moving pay-off. In This Corner Of The World isn’t as harrowing or outright soul destroying as Grave Of The Fireflies, but this isn’t to say that it doesn’t have a quieter, more restrained impact of its own. Where Barefoot Gen took us right to the epicentre of the nuclear bomb’s impact, In This Corner Of The World very deliberately places its characters at the periphery; one mesmerisingly nightmarish scene aside, this is a film not about the blast, the subsequent firestorms or the thousands dead, but about the physical and psychological ripple effect left in its wake.
“I hear it was a new bomb,” a family member says in hushed tones a few scenes after the explosion – a poignant and simple reminder of how unprepared anyone was for the horror still to come.
In its native country, In This Corner Of The World was a huge hit, making back more than 10 times its relatively modest $2m budget. As quiet and meditative as it is, the reasons are plain to see: the events of World War II are gradually passing from living memory, but the effects of Japan’s destruction and surrender changed its course forever. The movie provides a meticulous document of a dark chapter in world history.
Through thick and thin, as fires rage in the distance, Suzu and her family carry on with their lives as best they can: picking wild ingredients and cooking up their dwindling supplies of rice. Even for those of us far outside the country’s cultural sphere, In This Corner Of The World is an elegantly-told story about suffering, loss and emotional resilience.
In This Corner Of The World is out now in UK cinemas.