Hope you had a good New Year’s. Let’s start things off by expounding on a shocking decision I made last year.
So if you ever read my own top anime list for 2017 (where the definition of anime got stretched real hard, but if you guys can put Neo Yokio and Thunderbolt Fantasy in your lists, then I can put NiER: Automata in mine), you’d know that I now have a new all-time favorite anime. And to be honest, I was pretty surprised too. Even amongst the good anime that came out in 2017, you’d be hard-pressed to find somebody who now has a new #1 on their top list, and even the people who adore Your Name and A Silent Voice would only go so far as to say it’s their new favorite anime movie of all-time. But no, In This Corner of the World is my new all-time favorite ever. Considering the amount of anime I’ve seen amongst with the number I like (which I believe to be acceptably high), that’s not a claim I make lightly.
But what exactly about this movie has captured my attention so viciously? Well it’s an anime, so it’s best to start by talking about the animation – which is absolutely fantastic. Directed by Sunao Katabuchi, the guy who brought Black Lagoon and Mai Mai Miracle to life, and produced by MAPPA before 2017 took a toll on their output, there’s a reason this film came to be part of the big anime film trilogy of 2016.
Anyone who’s seen one of Katabuchi’s films would know that he specializes in a style that’s so similar and yet so different from Studio Ghibli, evoking a feeling of nostalgia and wonder that’s grounded in reality rather than going for the magical realism of Spirited Away. The characters are drawn in a distinctly moe style that is meant to exhume a pleasant sense of warmth whilst also partaking in the “ironic moe” style of storytelling that has come to define a good amount of recent shows like Girls’ Last Tour and Made In Abyss. And even if you didn’t know that settings of these movies were heavily researched recreations of real-life periods from the past, the way Japanese culture is depicted combined with the vibrant colors and occasional art style shifts makes it clear that this is a setting that’s bursting with life. In this particular movie’s case, what’s being recreated is Japan during the WWII-era (and the time period when the lead character was just a child) right down to the weather conditions during particular days and everything. In short, this is a very visually ambitious movie that never goes into excess the way, say, Psychic School Wars does.
Some of you know that I prefer my settings to be based in reality rather than be completely fictional because I like to somewhat relate to a story, and it’s harder for me to do that when the setting can never exist in real life. That’s part of the reason why I never got into space operas or high fantasy growing up, and I think one of the big reasons I’m drawn to Japanese cartoons so much is how much they love to put their real-life culture into everything they make. As such, a visually enrapturing depiction of 1940s Japan is right up my alley, and when that setting plays a large part in the story, even better. It’s just a treat to see how Japanese life was back in that era and how it defines the characterization and conflict of the film to the point that setting itself is its own character. We’re currently liking it in Ancient Magus’ Bride, and a lot of us like it here too.
The most unique achievement this movie accomplishes in my mind though is how it combines the light-hearted slice-of-life humor you’d expect to see in something like Nichijou with the brutal war-time drama that characterizes anime classics like Barefoot Gen and Grave of the Fireflies. That’s obviously not a combination just anyone can pull off, as combining humor with drama itself is something anime in general struggles with, including with good shows like Fullmetal Alchemist and Magus’ Bride (no, you cannot convince me that Elias’s chibi faces are funny). It’s even harder when you’re dealing with such a sensitive topic as WWII and Hiroshima, but even if we could normally accept injecting humor into those situations, slice-of-life humor from Nichijou wouldn’t exactly be my first pick. Even if we don’t like it, most of us would at least accept that the humor from Family Guy would fit better.
But surprisingly, not only did I find the jokes to be gut-bustingly hilarious (which in itself is a rarity for anime), but they fit in so naturally with the war setting as well whilst being surprisingly dark at times. There’s a scene when the main protagonist’s brother gets killed off-screen and the army couldn’t find his brain to give to the family, which is apparently a Japanese thing to do, so they sent a rock instead. It’s played off as a joke, but it never came off as insensitive, and I don’t think it’s just because Suzu’s brother barely had any screen time for us to care about him. It’s hard to explain, but the movie does state that the enlisted aren’t expected to live long, so you could argue that the brother was dead long before his actual death and thus it’s not too soon to laugh at his situation.
The movie knows how to integrate the jokes, but it also knows when to stop the humor as well. After a certain tragic scene where the animation gets really experimental, there’s no comedy until near the end when things start to recover, and even then a lot of it is limited to light-hearted reassurances towards people you know are doomed. It’s pretty typical “using humor to enlighten us to the characters so that when the drama hits, we care about them” fare in abstract, but there’s a lot more detail to it than just establishing visual novel character quirks, and I think In This Corner of the World perfects this storytelling device to a tee. Even if you don’t find the humor to be funny, you get a lot of culture through the jokes, a fair amount of world-building is thrown in, and Suzu’s characterization is integrated as well. That’s a lot of factors to consider, but it’s because the team behind this movie managed to take all of this into account that it can get away with this weird combination of tones in the first place. If just anyone could do it, then In This Corner of the World would be a lot less special.
As for the actual substance, I’ll be frank: it just blew me away. I wrote quite a bit on what makes the story special in a previous post, but in summary, it’s an anime that promotes positive thinking whilst recognizing its limits, especially during one of the most infamous events in Japanese history. Despite what some people think, I’m not an inherently negative person. I like positive things in life just like everyone else. But in fiction, I also want a challenge, and it just so happens that a lot of challenging things in life come from a very negative place. Plus, happy endings don’t feel very special if you don’t go through pain to get it. And I mean pain that sticks by the way. Not the pain that Vash felt in Trigun when he was forced to kill a guy and go through depression, only to defeat his brother with the same shitty pacifistic logic he’s always lived by after recovering.
I dunno why, but for some reason, I just really love when war stories are executed beyond everything I generally despise about them. Princess Mononoke is one of my personal favorites partly due to how despite ultimately being an environmental message movie about how fighting is wrong, the humans were depicted as good people whilst the animals were depicted as bloodthirsty savages. And at first, it seemed like In This Corner of the World would just be Barefoot Gen for a more modern audience with the “war causes pain to everyone and not just soldiers” message and everything. But while it’s there, it didn’t stop there, and actually went towards a positive direction that I didn’t know I wanted or was even possible. But as soon as I saw it, I wanted it really badly.
Why? Because quite frankly, I think Suzu’s “I need to stay happy even when the world tries it best to take away my happiness” is a powerful positive message that could be applied to many different situations whilst also fitting in very well with horrible situations like Hiroshima. And as long as you acknowledge that said message isn’t going to be applicable to everything (like if Suzu lost her extended family or if she was at Hiroshima during the bombing itself) then I don’t see anything wrong with it. It’s okay to mope when things get bad, but at the end of the day, you’re more likely to accomplish something by facing the future with positive determination rather than wallow yourself into the five-year standstill that the lead character from Clannad went through after his waifu died. Suzu lost important parts of her in more ways than one before the movie’s last act, and she definitely took it hard to the point that she almost made a decision that would have been ultimately fatal for her. But she hadn’t lost everything yet, and thank god she realized that and got out of her standstill in the span of a few weeks (or was it months? I forget).
Despite the cutesy presentation and ultimately positive attitude towards life, In This Corner of the World is a really deep film. In fact, it could be argued that those factors add to the deepness rather than detract from it – or at the very least make the deepness unique. I like my intellectual stories when they’re executed in a way I find interesting. I love well-developed character arcs. I love animation and the potential it has for storytelling. I love funny jokes and moving dramas. The setting is great, and did I mention that the music is phenomenal as well? Basically, this movie seems to have everything that I want out of anime and more, and the way it combines them is just so good whilst also being one-of-a-kind.
However, if I’m being honest, all of what I said earlier is just overly-long and unnecessary rationalization. The true reason why this anime is my new #1 is because it was an experience like no other. Where all the flaws with it I could have pointed out just became affection points in my eyes. Where watching it gives me inner thrills from start to finish. Because let’s be truthful: I don’t really know what In This Corner of the World is actually about. I don’t know what any of my favorites from the popular critical acclamations like Akira to the controversial post-modern blockbusters like Guilty Crown are really about. No one does, and anyone who says otherwise is either lying or the living embodiment of that godawful Dunning-Krueger Effect. Because that’s the thing about opinions: no matter how much factual backing you put into them, they’re always going to be as subjective as the value of art in general.
All I can say for sure is that it’s anime like this, as well as the other members of the 2016 anime movie trilogy and recent series like Scum’s Wish that keep me a fan of the medium. Who cares if my interpretation of it and those other products aren’t correct as long as it makes me happy, y’know? In This Corner of the World is really special to me. Not exactly the same way that my loved ones are special to me, but it’s definitely something that can’t be duplicated, nor would I want it to be. You probably don’t feel the same way about this anime, but you most likely do about some other anime. And whose to say your feelings for it are wrong?
If you are one of those people who say that sort of stuff about people’s favorites, then I’m sorry, but you deserve to have your Internet privileges revoked and be forced to sit through a 24-hour loop of all of Ed Sheeran’s popular songs from last year.