Based on the popular manga by Fumiyo Kono, Sunao Katabuchi's In This Corner of the World (2016) offers an extremely close and personal look at one young woman's life as WWII draws to a close in Hiroshima and Kure, Japan. Co-written by Katabuchi with Chie Uratani (a frequent collaborator since they worked together on Kiki's Delivery Service in 1989), In This Corner of the World pulls no punches in both its commitment to realism and a refusal to sugar-coat one of the 20th century's most horrific events. The story lurches forward in a way that promises suspense as the inevitable draws near, yet this intimate and culturally focused film almost has no choice but to keep outsiders at arm's length.
In This Corner of the World was a project four years in the making: initially crowd-funded in 2012 during pre-production, this labor of love features beautifully rendered backgrounds and locales sourced from pre-Hiroshima photographs and video, not to mention roughly a dozen interviews with elderly residents---most of whom were children at the time, and thus safely evacuated well in advance---that bolster the film's sense of realism. While its characters are entirely fictional, they nonetheless feel as real as their surroundings. 18-year-old Suzu Urano, who loves drawing and eventually weds Hojo Shusaku, is our primary window into this world and, with some exceptions, remains purely optimistic before and after a number of personal tragedies occur. The story unfolds at a slow and steady pace: most of its takes place between 1944-45, when Suzu meets her young suitor, the realities of war slowly overtake their lives, food rations and air raids lead to evacuations, Shusaku is drafted by the Navy, local warships are attacked, firebombing claims most of their surroundings in Kure and, of course, the eventual dropping of a new and deadly bomb is soon to come.
Aside from its commitment to detail, In This Corner of the World's greatest asset is the optimistic tone and outlook in the midst of death, destruction, and chaos. It's a good film with good intentions that would've been great with a more efficient pace and, dare I say, less characters: since its cast isn't exactly burdened by reality, streamlining its focus by eliminating several major and minor characters would've been an improvement. In This Corner of the World also includes at least half a dozen short scenes (many of which are less than a minute each) that focus on small moments that rarely add much to the story: these often feel more confusing than essential and, combined with the film's episodic jumps forward in time, tend to cripple its overall momentum. For a dramatic film that eclipses the 120-minute mark---which, even outside the world of animation, is almost an eternity---it doesn't say much that hasn't been said before.
It's certainly no Grave of the Fireflies, but In This Corner of the World is still a mostly successful film that, if nothing else, should be praised for its beautiful tone and visual prowess. The film earned back roughly 10 times its modest budget at the Japanese box office, which is great news for lovers of hand-drawn animation. More great news arrives with Shout Factory's upcoming release of In This Corner of the World on Blu-ray, which serves up a top-tier A/V presentation that plays to the film's considerable strengths. Less impressive are the bonus features (in quality, not number), but it's still a low-priced package that established fans will enjoy and newcomers should watch at least once.
Presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, In This Corner of the World looks as beautifully rich and refined as you might expect for a recent film of this type, boasting wonderful color reproduction and a suitably smooth appearance. There's a lot of nuance and small details on display, whether the film's playing it straight or going for a more artistic atmosphere. Dirt and debris are obviously not an issue here, nor are traditional animation-on-disc flaws such as banding, compression artifacts, or jagged edges. Simply put, it's more or less a perfect presentation of this visually impressive film.
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Likewise, the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix (which defaults to an English dub, but the original Japanese is also available) perfectly conveys the film's unique atmosphere. Of course, quieter moments dominate In This Corner of the World, with lush and dynamic music cues and crisp dialogue. The more fearsome moments are aggressive with deep, rumbling explosions and gunfire, often with strong channel separation and noticeable bursts of LFE. Though I mainly focused on the Japanese track (the English is fine as far as dubs go, but just seems way out of place in a film that aims for historical accuracy), both featured near-identical volume levels and dynamic range, so fans of either track will be happy. Speaking of which, two subtitle options are also available: one for the English dub, and a second that translates the Japanese mix. I'm seeing a lot more of these lately and, quite frankly, it's a standard that's long overdue.
Shout Factory's interface, very similar to the poster seen above, features simple navigation. Separate options are available for audio/subtitle setup, chapter selection, and extras. This two-disc release (one Blu-ray, one DVD) is packed in a clear, dual-hubbed keepcase with a 16-Page Preview of the original manga, two-sided artwork, and a matching slipcover.
The extras look fairly good on paper, but only a few of them are essential. Perhaps the best are Interviews with director Suna Katabuchi (41:50) and producer Masao Maruyama (12:47), who talk about the original manga, what the story meant to them personally, and other topics including some of the characters, perfecting small details, interviewing those who lived through the events, character designs, the music, Christmas in Japan, other WWII anime such as Barefoot Gen and Grave of the Fireflies, Satoshi Kon's unfinished film The Dream Machine, the changing direction of anime, and more. These are both presented in Q&A format, with each question getting its own chapter for easy reference. Maruyama's questions are a lot less film specific and he goes into less detail, but there's still some worthwhile material there.
We're also treated to a location guide of sorts, "Hiroshima & Kure: Then & Now" (15:09), which pairs scenes from the film with recent video clips from their approximate locations; it's put together a little sloppily and the subtitles play without narration, but still worth a look. Another short featurette is advertised as U.S. Tour Highlights (15:23), but is really just a Q&A clip featuring director Suna Katabuchi and producer Taro Maki. Last but not least is a collection of Theatrical Trailers (5 clips, 5:05 total) and a TV Spot (0:33). Considering the lack of an audio commentary, which would have likely given more context to the film for younger or unfamiliar viewers, it's a decent but underwhelming set of extras.
In This Corner of the World certainly means well, and its commitment to accuracy and atmosphere should place it high on the list of WWII-era dramas told from a Japanese perspective. But the narrative flow is extremely choppy at times, which undercuts some of the drama at critical moments and robs the film of reaching even greater heights. Still, it's a visual and historical tour de force and another entry in the resurrected ranks of hand-drawn animation, and that alone makes it worth looking into. Shout Factory's Blu-ray/DVD is a low-priced release that offers a top-tier A/V presentation and nice packaging, although the lack of more worthwhile extras is a little disappointing. Established fans and curious newcomers should at least consider it mildly Recommended, although a rental might be enough for some.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work, teaches art classes and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs, and writing in third person.