In This Corner of the World

(Catch my previous Sunao Katabuchi film review here: Mai Mai Miracle)

After Sunao Katabuchi’s 2nd film Mai Mai Miracle, his career really began to take off and he became one amongst a handful of Japanese anime feature directors to be compared constantly with Studio Ghibli co-founder Hayao Miyazaki. And as I’ve discussed previously, the comparisons here are apt as Sunao began his career working with Ghibli and was at one time the first person in consideration as director on a Ghibli film (Kiki’s Delivery Service) other than Takahata or Miyazaki. His first film, Princess Arete, is a feminist/humanist fairy tale based on a novel by a female British author and animated in a traditional 2D style reminiscent of the the work of Toei in the 60s, including Isao Takahata’s first feature film Horus: Prince of the Sun. Sunao’s second film hearkens back to a rural Japan of his youth and deals with themes of personal growth, acceptance of life and death, and the beauty of imagination of the magic of creativity, which mirrors My Neighbor Totoro in more than few ways.

Sometime between 2011 and 2014, Sunao Katabuchi left Studio Madhouse to join the ex-Madhouse producer Masao Maruyama (who was oddly enough not one of the four producer’s on Sunao’s Mai Mai Miracle, which was produced by the Studio) at his new production company MAPPA, or Maruyama Animation Project Production Association. There, he was given a budget of $2.2 million USD with which to create his third film: a figure roughly ten times less than the average production budget on a Studio Ghibli project. Nonetheless, he created a beautiful piece of animation with a run-time of over two hours, which is uncharacteristic of his earlier work and of anime films in general. The film was received worldwide and made back ten times its budget at the box office ($22.5 million USD), while being critically acclaimed and winning nearly one hundred different awards at festivals worldwide in 2016 and since, and as of May 2018, it is still working the festival circuit and racking up kudos points for MAPPA and Sunao Katabuchi.

The film recounts the life of a young girl growing up in and around Hiroshima in the years leading up to World War II. It recounts her budding relationship with a classmate named Mizuhara Tetsu, their estrangement over the years, their graduation and his moving on to join the Japanese Navy during the war, coming back to visit her as a married woman for one last rendezvous, and his likely death in the last few bloody months or years of the war. The girl, Suzu Hojo, also meets a second boy in her childhood who will prove to have a positive impact on her life. The boy’s name is Shusaku and the two met whilst visiting the city as youths after being picked up (literally?) by a beast man who traps them in his bag and threatens to take them home to eat them. The two manage to escape, Suzu forgets the encounter, but years later, when she has grown up and become a woman, Shusaku calls upon her and the two are married, despite not knowing each other that well, and move in to his family home across the mountain from Suzu’s childhood home in Hiroshima.

The third great relationship in Suzu’s life is between herself and her art. She begins merely doodling pictures in her notebooks as school, and slowly develops an interest in watercolors, which naturally matures into a beautiful impressionistic landscape style. But when the war comes, and Suzu has many duties in the home and very little money with which to buy art supplies, she falls back on her old sketches and continues to grow in her style and her abilities until she loses both her right arm and a loved one in an air raid during the war.

The film is extremely tragic as almost everyone that Suzu comes into contact with and shares a piece of her heart with comes to a bad end. She loses her ability to create her art and over time loses all sense of living within a vibrant time and place. Her corner of the world metamorphoses into a hell of a domain, but all the while, Suzu just does her best to muddle on through it and keep her chin up, and all this under conditions in which most would buckle and give up, under conditions in which I would surely blow my brains out and end the pain right there and then, or retreat into madness.

Sunao took care to research the locations and styles of the times and places in his film to ensure that it was realistic for those who suffered through the same events and would recognize the world in which Suzu walked. In this, he was aided by a great R&D division in his animation staff, as well as by his wife Chie Uratani (who previously worked as an animator on his other films as well). Also surely of importance in this effort was Sunao’s previous work as a location scout and R&D man during the pre-production of Kiki’s Delivery Service in 1988 and 1989 when he traveled to Sweden to study the architecture of Stockholm and Visby. The final effect was to place Suzu in a real world that no longer exists, and indeed, can no longer be recreated except in the expansive form of animation wherein the possibilities are nearly limitless.

In This Corner of the World is a testament to the power of animation to not only refer to and dramatize content for children, but to create complex worlds wherein real human emotions and traumas can be broached and explored in a manner that makes them less viscerally upsetting and simultaneously more universal than mere live-action filmography could. In this approach, we find the third variant of the Ghibli formula, which is realism and an approach to animation that shies away from no subject matter. This form approach regards animation as able to handle the darkness of human existence and historical experience as in the great Takahata masterpiece for Studio Ghibli, Grave of the Fireflies, as well as the most banal, day to day realities of life as expressed in Takahata’s Only Yesterday or My Neighbors The Yamadas.

Most Japanese directors of animated films eventually seem to get the Ghibli, and especially the Miyazaki, comparison (at least in Western media). However, most (Makoto Shinkai included) do not employ animation techniques akin to the traditional 2D style of Ghibli or animate stories even remotely similar to those within the Ghibli canon. Sunao Katabuchi uses traditional 2D animation throughout this film and even employs multiplane camera techniques ala Walt Disney, while coming fully to terms with the thematic interests of Isao Takahata. All three of his films are of different visual styles and have parallels with the trifecta of approaches popularized in Japanese animation by Ghibli (Magical Realism, Postwar Rural Nostalgia, and Social Realism) pioneers Miyazaki and Takahata. And as such, I believe it uncontroversial to claim that Sunao is one of the few true heirs to the Ghibli dynasty, and a great animator deserving of much praise and attention for as long as he decides to continue creating films.

 

Cody Ward

[P.S. Masao Maruyama has since moved on from MAPPA to found a new production company called Studio M2. My money’s on this studio being the production platform for Sunao’s next feature, which will hopefully be released sooner rather than later as he’s averaged 7 years between each film so far.]

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