Kono Sekai no Katasumi ni sets its tone early on when its protagonist, Urano Suzu, tries out ways to bulk up the family dinner. For meat she has only four dried pilchards: one for her husband, one for her father-in-law, one for her mother-in-law, and one for herself. There is rice, but not enough for four; dried plum seeds, potatoes, a radish. Not enough. So she goes and picks herbs from the roadside. Dandelion, horsetail, sorrel. Make congee with rice and add diced potatoes for bulk. Simmer dandelion stems and radish peel in sugar and soy sauce, then add tofu dregs. Thinly slice radish and rub slices with salt and sorrel. Simmer dried plum seeds in water then add dried pilchards and baste. To be served: potato congee, dandelion tofu dregs, salted radish slices, and plum-simmered pilchards. Four dishes out of four fishes.
All this is charmingly domestic, but the question is, why does this family only have four small fishes to cook with? Because the year is 1944, the place is Hiroshima Prefecture, and Japan is at war: those four fishes are the family’s daily ration. Adapted from a manga of the same title by Kouno Fumiyo, whose previous work Yuunagi no Machi, Sakura no Kuni received international acclaim for its quiet and humane depiction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki’s atomic bomb survivors, Kono Sekai no Katasumi ni follows the life of Urano Suzu as she marries away into the Houjou family in the naval city of Kure, changing her surname, her home, and her very idea of normal life. War is everywhere in the backdrop in Kure. Battleships sail in and out of the harbour, all the men seem to work for the navy, and powerful searchlights roam the mountains at night in navy spotting drills. Yet this is not a film about war. Director Katabuchi Sunao focuses the film on civilian life in war, omitting direct depictions of the war to highlight instead its effects on vulnerable individuals and how they adapt to it. The result is that for half the film, rather than seeing wounded soldiers or starving people, we see scenes of optimistic and reassuring domesticity. Suzu frets about her haughty sister-in-law. The family builds an air-raid shelter. Ants get into the sugar.
Given the examples above, you might be tempted to dismiss the film as shallow, especially in comparison to the other famous anime film about civilians in the Second World War, Grave of the Fireflies. But you would be mistaken. Grave of the Fireflies is a tragedy about what war takes away from people. Kono Sekai no Katasumi ni does have an element of this. After half a film’s worth of peaceful domesticity the war suddenly thunders into the Suzu’s everyday life. You never see it coming. There’s the street where Suzu picked her herbs, you think; there’s the pond where she went after buying sugar: then shrapnel comes hurtling down and tears them apart. You feel the absence of all the things lost to war more poignantly for having spent half of the film with their presence. In this regard the film takes the viewer to gaze long and hard at the destruction wrought by the Pacific War, as well as war in general. Just like Grave of the Fireflies, it asks, what if the war didn’t happen? Wouldn’t life have been so much happier?
But where Kono Sekai no Katasumi ni differs from Grave of the Fireflies is in the way it goes on to show what people do with what’s left. The Houjou family runs on a cheering and pragmatic optimism. A demolished house means more firewood, while the government surrendering is an occasion to break out carefully hoarded white rice. The Houjou family, after all, are small characters in a complex world. What can one person do against the entirety of a war? Their response to war is not to resist it, but to accept it. Rather than trying to master an external inevitability to suit themselves, they master themselves to suit the external. This is what makes Kono Sekai no Katasumi ni unique among war films. Though it is about the Second World War, the real battle of the film is the Houjou family’s daily battle to restore normalcy after the war’s every assault on their everyday life. The most heroic act is not to fight, but to be normal when all the world is in chaos. When the Houjou family turns war destruction into occasions for gladness, they co-opt the militarism of war for the domestic. They defuse it.
Readers well versed in history, for whom the mention of World War Two Japan may recall the yet-controversial topics of human experimentation and comfort women, may ask if this film is not simply self-victimisation by Japan in a bid to whitewash its soldiers’ atrocities. This is a valid concern. Such readers can rest easy knowing that Kono Sekai no Katasumi ni is not a political film. Its characters could be civilians anywhere, its war any war. And just as the Houjou family is too preoccupied with the business of living to care about the progress of war, Katabuchi wastes no time on political statements, putting his effort instead into making the film shine. For it is a beautiful film: colourful and soft in its scenes of peace, honest and unafraid in depicting the ravages of war. Character animation and voice acting are simple but express with full weight the emotions of contentment, anxiety, despair, and then optimism that the characters move through. Most impressive is Katabuchi’s cleverly understated direction. The camera and the narrative slide over Suzu’s life to tell her story not through events but through aftermaths. It is always what comes after which counts. The war comes; the family is devastated; but still Suzu moves on, through the wreckage of war, finding beauty and happiness again. Finding life worth living again.
Perhaps the film’s ethos is best captured in its theme song, Kanashikute Yarikirenai (Everything’s So Sad I Cannot Bear It). kotringo, the composer of the film’s soundtrack, covers this song originally sung by The Folk Crusaders. In her cover, kotringo marries the song’s lyrics—
I cannot bear it very much more
Oh, this boundless feeling of emptiness inside:
Somewhere is there a cure to be found?
Everything’s so sad, everything’s so sad
I cannot bear it very much more
Oh, this burning feeling of anguish inside:
By tomorrow, will it still be here?
—with delicate instrumentation that builds over the course of the song into a wistful and beautiful mix of melodies, culminating joyously and triumphantly against the sad lyrics. Although the lyrics are about sadness, her music turns them into something beautiful. So, too, even when the war brings its worst to bear on Suzu and her family, there is always something which lets them move on and see that the world is still beautiful. That something is called hope.
Kono Sekai no Katasumi ni will be released in the UK in June; in Germany in July; and in the United States and France in September.