IN THIS CORNER OF THE WORLD, Japan, 2016, 130 minutes, Colour. Directed by Sunao Katabuchi. Rated M (Strong themes).
World audiences have become used to animated Japanese films from the Ghibli Studios, Ponyo, Howl’s Moving Castle, Arietty…. The audiences have appreciated their animation style, the creation of characters and their simplicity, the backgrounds, the local stories, many serious and reflecting on Japanese history, especially of war.
The film has all these qualities but comes from a different studio. However, it is an invitation for world audiences as well as Japanese audiences to go back into the past, to appreciate different times, different difficulties and how characters coped.
The film opens in the 1930s, focusing on the little girl, Suzu. We see her family, her siblings, the life and style in rural Japanese villages around Hiroshima in the decade before the war. Suzu is quite imaginative, a great capacity for drawing and bringing stories to life.
The screenplay offers many dates which makes the film something of a diary, something of a chronicle. Some years are skipped over quite rapidly, Suzu growing up during the late 1930s, then into the 1940s and her reaching the age of 19.
Audiences will be expecting explicit references to the war and Japanese involvement but this does not immediately happen. So much of Japanese life and international events do not impinge very strongly on people in local villages. What is important for Suzu as a young woman is that she marry. We see an arranged marriage, negotiations, finding a husband, the wife meeting the husband and the grandmother urging her with the symbol of the umbrella and the bride saying that she was willing to open her umbrella for her husband… Human feelings and love come later.
Suzu’s mother-in-law is quite hard on her. While Suzu is a loving wife, she also become something of a servant on the household, being relied on to clean, to mend and sew, to find ways of making meals where food was so scarce. She has a variety of recipes, gathers herbs from the countryside. The family survives. However, her husband goes to war.
The people in the village and the audience become much more conscious of the war, looking at the naval base of the ships in Hiroshima Bay. Then the planes begin to fly over, exploding in a variety of colours over the screen. Then there are the bombardments, the family seeking safety in dugout shelters.
We know that the atomic bomb is coming. Suzu wants to go back to her home in Hiroshima from her husband’s village but has lost her hand in a bomb blast, the hand with which she drew. The bombardment also kills her companion, a little girl. Which means that she is not in Hiroshima when the bomb was dropped. And the audience does not see it. Rather, there are vibrations, the vast cloud, and the repercussions for the people of the city as well as of the neighbours.
Then the war is over, the Emperor surrenders, the Americans arrive, offering chocolate, and the Japanese have to adapt to defeat, the prospects of a different life and the rest of the 20th century. That, of course, is something that the audience for this film supplies in retrospect.
The film is bright in colour, gentle in its storytelling, a different perspective on Japan in the 1930s and 1940s.
Umbrella Released 7th December
Peter Malone MSC is an Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.