The underlying theme of this award-winning animated feature, “In This Corner of the World, is persistence or, in Japanese, gambare (頑張れ). There a lingering suggestion of love and loss and change layered throughout for those familiar with Japanese culture.
The story begins in December of 1933 (Showa 8) and is about how one girl meets and marries and survives the war. With her older brother Yoichi sick, Suzu is taking the sheets of nori her family makes to be sold in Hiroshima. On her way, we see a pair of cranes (sagi 鷺） flying in the same direction suggesting a different kind of pairing.
Japan already has foreign influence. We understand this immediately with the Christmas music. Merchants are trying to sell this foreign holiday while also keeping up with the old traditions of end of the year meetings and New Year’s Day presents. Suzu later tells her younger sister of a curious encounter where she is kidnapped by a hairy bakemono when she was lost. The bakemono puts her in a large basket on its back, a basket big enough to comfortably hold her and a young man. Using a telescope, she looks and gets her bearings. She sees the famous dome that will survive the atomic bomb and become a symbol of both the war and peace. As they travel over a bridge, Suzu outwits the bakemono using a sheet of nori and the image of the moon.
Although New Year’s is the biggest holiday in Japan, we don’t see this celebration. We do see Suzu’s drawing and her pencil box as she describes the bakemono encounter. Suzu is always drawing, quickly wearing down her pencil (more evidence of foreign influence). The box has a picture of a sparrow, a common bird, and a plum blossom. This reinforces a connection between birds and Suzu. Sparrow is suzume (雀）in Japanese. Plum blossom is ume（梅).
In addition, there seems to be a significance in bridges. While bridges function as a metaphor for connections between people and ideas in both Japan and the United States, the word for bridge in Japanese is hashi (橋）and you’ll hear it in many place names and even some last names. But it is also a homophone for the word for chopsticks, hashi (箸). When the family discusses an old wive’s tale about how one holds one’s chopsticks determines how close or far one will end up living with one’s in-laws, the image of the bridge meeting would loom back in one’s mind. Bridges also have an association with romance such as in “The Tales of Ise” and the iris garden of eight bridges (Yatsuhashi 八つ橋).
Later, in the summer, Suzu, her older brother and her younger sister walk across the exposed sand during an extreme low tide to their grandmother’s house carrying a watermelon. Watermelons are also part of the foreign influence in the area as are the tomatoes. Unlike Taiwan or the United States, a watermelon is an expensive delicacy for special occasions in Japan. In Japanese poetry, it also can suggest a girl’s transformation into womanhood.
While the others are taking a nap at the grandmother’s house, Suzu wakes up to see a poor girl whose clothing is patched. One of those patches is similar to that used for her green kimono. Kimono fabric comes in long strips and it seems likely that the poor girl’s clothing was patched from a remnant. The girl is eating the watermelon rinds, but Suzu offers to cut her two pieces. Before Suzu can give them to the girl, the others wake up and the girl disappears. Her grandmother promises to give the two pieces to the girl later. Someone tells Suzu that the girl was just a zashiki-warashi (座敷童子), a type of yokai–a supernatural spirit–that hangs around the guest room.
Back at home, her brother scolds her for leaving her kimono behind, but she does so for the zashiki-warashi. There’s a pun when Suzu makes a drawing of her brother. Oniisan means older brother, but onisan is a demon. Besides her brother and sister, Suzu has some affection for a boy at school, Mizuhara Tetsu. As she goes to school with him on her mind, we see two cranes, but we also see that Tetsu has patches on his clothing. We later learn, he does not want to go home because his parents just drink all day.
Tetsu gives her a pencil. Looking at the ocean, he comments that the white waves look like white rabbits and this again conjures up the image of cranes or herons because in Japanese you have shiroi usagi( 白い兎) and shiroi sagi (白い鷺).She makes a magical drawing where the white waves (shiranami) turn into white rabbits. The fanciful imagery of white rabbits flying ties in with the traditional Japanese counting system by which rabbits are counted using the same counting word as birds (wa or 羽). In Japan, white rabbits also pound mochi rice cakes on the moon. The thought of the moon itself also reminds us of the young man she met at the beginning of the movie on bridge in the bakemono’s basket.
While Tetsu seems like a match for Suzu emotionally, in a practical sense, this is a match that cannot be. Suzu’s family is economically stable enough to have a house and work. The three children in Suzu’s family do not wear clothes that have patches on them.
There is an old saying during that time period: Poor people sold their sons to the army and their daughters to the Chinese slavers (for prostitution). In this story, we see it played out. Tetsu, like his older brother, goes into the navy even though he hates the ocean. The supposed zashiki-warashi, Rin, is sold into a brothel, kept in a district that she cannot leave, but Suzu will not meet Rin until after she is married.
Suzu is 19 when the man she will marry comes to her house. At first, she thinks it might be Tetsu and it is Tetsu who helps the man and his father find her house. Tetsu is back to commemorate the death of his older brother. Suzu is too shy to meet the man, Shusaku, and his father, but pretends to be someone else and helps them find their way back through a camellia forest. Her future husband sees through this pretense we realize later because of her beauty mark.
The presence of Tetsu and the camellia during this incident reminds us of the place Kure where Shusaku is from and of the love match that cannot be between Tetsu and Suzu. Camellia are the flower symbol of Kure. In an old folk tale, a woman asks her sailor lover to bring back camellia seeds because she’s heard the oil makes one’s hair long and beautiful. The sailor doesn’t return until three years have passed and by then it is too late. His love has committed suicide, throwing herself into the sea believing that he would never come back to her.
Suzu’s last name means bay or creek field while Tetsu’s last name means water origin. Even though their last names suggest harmony, economics will keep Suzu and Tetsu apart. Suzu agrees to marry Shusaku. On her trip over, two white herons (shirasagi) can be seen from the window of the train, reminding us of the rabbits. She does not wear the ceremonial wedding robe with the white head covering. She does wear a pink kimono with a camellia print and she wears a red camellia in her hair. The next day after the ceremony, as her new husband and father leave, we again see two cranes.
Her new family are kindly; her mother-in-law welcomes her help. Only her sister-in-law, Keiko seems to be a bit brusque. Keiko is widowed; her husband was too frail to join the army. Keiko lives in the city and is a Modern Girl, adopting Western dress and ways, but her last name, Kuromura (黒村meaning “Black Village”) reminds us of the impending doom for Hiroshima.
As a married woman, Suzu again gets lost in Hiroshima. This time, she doesn’t meet a bakemono; she meets someone who perhaps recognizes her from a past, from a time when she was first able to taste the red meat of watermelon. Suzu has used her old kimono, the one she wore when she met the Zashiki-warashi, to make a different outfit. And, as we recall, she also has that beauty mark that sets her apart from other Japanese women.
The poignant loyalty despite one’s own longings or wisdom is further emphasized during a lesson on survival cooking. With wartime rationing, Suzu consults a recipe from the warrior Kusunoki Masashige. The 14th Century samurai, Kusunoki (1294 – July 4, 1336) was a real man, one of several that Ivan Morris wrote about in his “The Nobility of Failure.” While used as an example of loyalty in pre-World War II educational materials, the mention of Kusunoki also reminds us of the eventual failure of the Japanese military ambitions. Kusunoki supposedly remained loyal to his emperor even when he disapproved and felt the emperor’s (Go-Daigo, 26 November 1288 – 19 September 1339) wishes would lead to a disastrous defeat.
You can still appreciate the story of Suzu and Hiroshima without understanding the cultural subtext. Yet to fully appreciate the gentle layering of meaning and nuance, of foreshadowing the atomic disaster that we know will hit Hiroshima on 6 August 1945, an understanding of the symbolism is essential. “In This Corner of the World” (Kono Sekai no Katasumi この世界の片隅）is a poignant reminder of life and loss during a war and the kind of spirit that ordinary people required to survive.
“In This Corner of the World” won the Jury Award for Feature Film at the Annecy International Film Festival and a Best Animated Feature from the Japanese Academy Awards. In Japanese with English subtitles.