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The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki remains one of the most devastating events that occurred in the twentieth century. The detonation of a bomb that was made with new technologies on a civilian city was the first and the last use of atomic energy. Despite bringing World War II to an end, it took the lives of hundreds of thousands of innocent people and brought significant destruction both to the nature of Japan and the well-being of the population.
This research project will explore In This Corner of the World, an animated drama film directed by Sunao Katabuchi. The film is set predominantly in 1944-1945 in Hiroshima and Kure, focusing on the contrast between the bright and unique Japanese culture and the devastation that was brought about by WWII.
In This Corner of the World depicts the process of growing up of a young woman, the film’s protagonist named Suzu. In the film, she is portrayed as an artist and an innocent daydreamer of primary school age. Her art is used as a storytelling method in order to transform and redeem the pettiness of the world. For example, when drawing her older brother, the girl pictures him as a monster, a two-legged beast with teeth and fur, which is very similar to the monsters drawn by Maurice Sendak for ‘Where the Wild Things Are.’ Some of the scenes in Suzu life unfold with the help of her own sketches, while others in a completely different style of drawing in order to depict the way in which the girl sees the world.
Very quickly through the film, the year is 1944, and Suzu is an eighteen-year-old woman who is engaged to be soon married to a port clerk Shusaku. However, the girl’s childhood ‘crush’ Tetsu, who has also undergone a transformation to a confident Naval officer, stays in the picture and is a part of Suzu’s life. The young woman tends to her family home and has inherited a new sibling, a judgmental sister-in-law Keiko and a kind niece, Harumi.
The lives of women around Suzu become the dominant focus of the film. Their contributions to the war effort including giving out rations to neighbors while making sure that the scarce resources that they have feed the entire family. The fact that the young woman’s family includes three generations makes it much harder for her to tend to everyone, especially during the war when most of the food in Japan went toward feeding the military.
The women of Hiroshima were at the forefront of keeping their families together and ensuring that they get all the care they deserve. As mentioned by Richard Minear in Hiroshima: Three Witnesses, people “stepped in to cover at home for those women who went off to work” (201). Women tried their best to pool the scarce resources to make sushi and rice dumplings to bring their family together over the dinner table and create a sense of community that was significantly undermined by war.
Similar to the fate of most women in Hiroshima, Suzu’s duties as a wife focus predominantly on rationing food not only for her family but also for the entire neighborhood. Thus, most of Suzu’s time was focused on cooking, getting water, making kimonos, and trying to preserve the image of a presentable homemaker. This is explained by the director’s concern with showing how the conflict that was WWII affected Suzu and women that were just like her. This is seen in the decision of Katabuchi to reduce the presence of men in the narrative.
In a scene where Suzu and four other women of the family are listening to the Hiroshima radio station on which the Emperor announced the capitulation of Japan, Suzu gets frustrated. She says, “They knew what we were getting into, didn’t they? They said we would fight to the end! There’s five of us still here! I still have my left arm and both legs” (Katabuchi). The three generations of women listening to the Emperor’s speech represent the hope that Japan placed on their government and the prosperous future. Suzu’s frustration is warranted – she lost her family members and got a serious injury, and all of that was for nothing.
It is worth mentioning that In This Corner of the World, the discussion of whether the bombing was the necessary evil in WWII history is absent. Instead, Sunao Katabuchi wanted to focus on the details of the everyday life in Hiroshima prior to the bombing in order to depict what makes life important; thus, the film is more about the minutia than the big picture. The realistic renderings of Kuru and Hiroshima during the war with a particular emphasis on props, decors, and costumes convincingly reveal how an armed conflict between countries can ruin the life of regular people in a flash.
In regards to the effects of the bombings, the severe devastation of Japanese society both in terms of physical and mental health cannot be doubted. The people were initially convinced that Japan would never lose the war as their government promised to go till the end and would never surrender. The disappointment with the Emperor is also seen in In This Corner of the World when the main characters listen to the announcement of Japan’s “unconditional surrender” (Walker 242).
The subsequent seven-year occupation of the country by the US brought some drastic changes in the political, educational, cultural, legislative, and popular cultural institutions and thus influenced the shaping of the society in the post-war years (Walker 242). The severe trauma associated with the bombing brought separation among people as supported by survivors’ reflections in Hiroshima: Three Witnesses. People tried to save themselves from radiation, and due to the spreading rumors of radiation being contagious, they were hesitant to help others. As evidenced by the tragic suicide of a notable Japanese author Hara Tamiki, the psychological strain on Japanese society was severe.
The mundane life of Suzu’s family and their frustration with war are echoed in Hiroshima: Three Witnesses that explored the experiences with the bombing of the novelist Ota Yoko, the poet Toge Sankichi, and the fabulist Hara Tamiki (Minear 3). Minear writes that the experiences of people who were lucky to survive were significantly affected by their worldviews and reactions (6). For Hara, the disaster was “precisely as if, while we are alive on this earth, each moment is filled to the brim with fathomless horror” (Minear 33).
This frustration was transferred into art with the authors’ Requiem and “Land of My Heart’s Desire” that was published after Hara’s death. Suzu also used art to deal with her feelings and express the concerns associated with war devastating her country. It is worth mentioning that Hara Tamiki committed suicide in 1951, and “Land of My Heart’s Desire” could be interpreted as his suicide note. The author was in a highly unstable mental state that was associated with his experience with Hiroshima and was exacerbated by the Korean War. This shows that some survivors of the disaster could not recover from the event and could not ‘un-see what they saw when the bombing had occurred.
If to further look at Minear’s exploration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it is notable that the bombing brought severe hunger to the city. As a witness mentions, “we lived every day in dire need of food. No one in this town extended a helping hand to the victims” (Minear 63). If to compare this experience with Suzu’s need to ensure the safety and well-being of her family, the two do not match up. Before the bombing, resources were scarce, but families made it possible to make food taste and last better, as seen in Suzu’s culinary adventures. In addition, neighbors did their best to help neighbors by providing rations to those in need, keeping a sense of community. However, after the bombing, there was a sense of separation that Minear mentioned (63).
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These reflections make one think both about the causes and outcomes of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as crucial events in the history of humankind. The debate over the bombing’s causes is still ongoing as there are opposing opinions as to why the United States had made such a dramatic war decision. The largest problem linked with the attack on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was the ethicality of using an atomic weapon against civilians. Most of the proponents of the attack argued that the decision to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki was a necessary evil to put the war to a halt and put an end to the suffering of the troops (Hasegawa 132).
In addition, the costs that went to fund the war undermined the economies of countries and had an adverse impact on society overall. The opponents of the bombing suggested that they were immoral and unfair in regards to the regular people who lived in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Japanese Cultural Particulars versus Universals
Like many other women who lived during WWII in other countries, Suzu does not escape the loss and devastation of her family in times of scarce resources. She is focused on learning how she can extend portions as well as make food taste better through adding plants and herbs as suggested by the “Increase Food Method” developed by a feudal samurai. This reference is particularly compelling for the Japanese audience as it appeals to its heritage.
Nevertheless, the issues depicted in the film would also apply to what was happening in other countries involved in the war. In 1945, when the United States began its Japanese mainland raids, Kure was attacked by naval airplanes (Bauer and Collins 19). In July of that year, Kuru was firebombed, and as seen in the film, Suzu gets nearly killed during the attack but is saved by Shusaku.
The protagonist loses her niece Harumi and brother Yoichi as well as her arm that she describes as an irreplaceable part of her as a human and as an artist. The entire family is shaken by the loss, with conflict getting to a boil. Sadly, Suzu gets blamed for the death of her niece, which hurts her deeply on an emotional level. Suzu is also frustrated by the actions of the government that promised its people that they would go till the very end and would attain victory in war. These feelings and issues could have occurred in any family, and this makes the film universally appealing, which is why it was well-received by both US and Western audiences based on reviews of the film from the English-speaking audience.
The motion picture brilliantly depicts the coming of age of a young woman in a complex political and social environment brought about by the Hiroshima bombing; it casts light on the daily life that persisted through the catastrophe, showing its impact on society. Women’s role is important to consider in this context as they have endured significant challenges after the bombing. For instance, some who were pregnant during the bombing miscarried or gave birth to stillborn children, experienced the impact of radiation on their health, had to deal with the discrimination associated with radiation sickness, and had to travel abroad in order to receive reconstructive surgery.
The scene depicting the bombing of Hiroshima occurs right before the film’s finale, which may be frustrating for most viewers. The bombing was foreshadowed in the film only one time so that when it occurred, the viewers would share the same shock and sadness that the main characters experienced. For Suzu and her family, the bombing is experienced from a distance for a short period of time since the narrative of the story provided a countdown to the Hiroshima disaster instead of focusing on the event’s impact. The withholding of the scenes until the end is a deliberate artistic choice of the director.
Then, the devastating scenes of the bombing are shown, such as a little girl holding tight to her dead mother for what seemed like a day before the body gets taken over by flies and maggots. The little girl accidentally meets Suzu and Shushaku as they are leaving Hiroshima for Karu. Thus, at the end of the film, the heartbreak of losing hundreds of thousands of people to the atomic bomb is juxtaposed to the sense of happiness associated with rebuilding one’s life.
This Corner of the World ends with installing the feeling that life has to go on and that humanity can deal with any of the devastating events as proven in history. However, the film does show that the director and those involved in making it invested a lot of time and resources into research to present a realistic image of wartime Hiroshima and Kuru.
The Corner of the World does an excellent job of showing the minutia of the daily lives of families caught in the middle of WWII and during the bombings of Hiroshima. The director’s specific focus on people rather than historical events makes the film more touching and connected to the authentic world despite being an animation. The role of women is especially important to mention as the protagonist, Suzu, is the one to care for her entire family made of three generations. She is the one to cook using scarce ingredients, fetch water, sew clothing, and manage to withstand the immense psychological pressure that war has brought on her.
Undoubtedly, the causes of Hiroshima were devastating for many people in Japan, but the film shows that humans have the ability to persevere and continue living despite hardships. The dedication and strength of Suzu teach viewers that every life tragedy has a positive outcome in the end, as seen from the film’s ending.
Bauer, Eddy, and Lawton Collins. The Marshall Cavendish Illustrated Encyclopedia of World War II. Marshall Cavendish Corporation, 1972.
Hasegawa, Tsuyoshi. “Were the Atomic Bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki Justified?” Bombing Civilians: A Twentieth-Century History, edited by Yuki Tanaka and Marilyn Young, The New Press, 2009, pp. 96-135.
Katabuchi, Sunao, director. In This Corner of the World. MAPPA, 2016.
Minear, Richard. Hiroshima: Three Witnesses. Princeton University Press, 1990.
Walker, Brett. A Concise History of Japan. Montana State University, 2015.