A Charlie Brown Christmas Treatise
[The following is my contribution to the Anime Secret Santa 2018 project organized over at Reverse Thieves. Always consider reading the others!]
I always start off my annual Anime Secret Santa exchanges with some kind of personal anecdote.
Part of that is to shake off some mental dust if I have not posted anything in a bit. But I also like to think it helps frame where I am with whatever my topic happens to be. After all, while I have choices provided to me, someone else is also enforcing what those options are. And inherent to the entire process is they are anime I have not already taken the time to prioritize and see. The person responsible for looking out for me this year was kind enough to give a little sentence with each of their recommendations, and had this blurb about In This Corner Of The World:
“A really good movie everyone should watch, and it’s on Netflix.”
And I had to laugh as I read this, directed in every way at myself.
You see, I already had the US release of the Blu-ray/DVD combo pack. I had it pre-ordered even, such confidence I had in Director and Writer Sunao Katabuchi’s (Black Lagoon, Princess Arete) notorious dedication to research and attention to detail. I more or less had it in hand on its release day, of… November 14, 2017.
It had sat on a shelf, unopened and unseen, ever since.
I like to keep something of a To-Do shelf when I buy things like books, games, movies, etc. It gives me a convenient place to pull things from I have yet to finish, before they get filed away into their more appropriate long term media shelves. And I have for sure welcomed other media purchases to that To-Do shelf in the time since, and enjoyed them in full. Each one a new opportunity to kick In This Corner Of The World down the proverbial road.
The gnawing thought of “I’m sure it is an excellent movie… but…” is a tricky mental hurdle.
A big prestige grade World War II movie, about family.
Set in Kure, just outside of Hiroshima.
Around the corner, if you will.
On the macro level international politics scale, what one already knows heading into this movie hangs over it like an anvil of dread and thunder. How the war ends.
And dealing with in my off time that can seem like a tall order when my after work entertainment attention competition next to it is, say, new volumes of Laid Back Camp or After Hours.
Well: It helps to never lose your sense of humor.
The film centers around the story of Suzu, who we first meet as a grade school girl.
Her family runs a seaweed drying businesses close to Hiroshima. We zip through some key moments in her youngest years there, summer visits and days at school, before a call comes requesting her hand in marriage. Suzu accepts, and moves to join the household of her new husband in the neighboring port city of Kure. The bulk of the film then consists of managing this life as best she can. The dates go by, rationing ramps up, air raids increase, and the Pacific War comes to its well known conclusion.
An important thing about Suzu is her juggling with the ideas of where she belongs almost in tandem with how her brain works.
She is kind and hardworking, even to the point of trying to recreate famous samurai siege recipes to help extend the family rations. But she is very bad at things like verbal directions. She overlooks even how to look for, well, the address to her new home or notice where the bathroom is. And she knows she is terrible at these things, which is key. Does her new home feel less like home because committing all these new things and places and people to memory is difficult to process, all the more so because the encroaching war keeps unending things? Or something else nagging at her?
One could consider her much more of a visual learner. Indeed her personal enjoyment of drawing and the joy she feels from sharing her artwork with others is a repeated point. I also found it interesting how the story never has a moment where Suzu wishes about attending Art School, which is the direction one might expect. Drawing is something Suzu does because she finds it fulfilling and fun. There is no real narrative direction for it turn into something more formal or professional.
She mentions herself how she can often feel distracted or like she is spacing out. The montage or her earlier years shows some of the more fantastical parts of her imagination. The visual style throughout the film also makes various small tweaks which can reflect this. A hazy walk by the beach with an ocean like watercolors, or at times almost impressionistic landscaping. And some other moments I would not want to spoil. These adjustments seldom last for more than a few seconds, and characters always remain grounded in their style. But they get across, to me anyway, the feeling of one’s brain short circuiting.
Her art hobby is at various points a driver of personal focus as well as a way to connect with others. Sources of pain and embarrassment, or points of love and loss.
All the while: Art is a thing Suzu does, but it is not The Thing Suzu Does.
This careful portrayal of her character does not paint her with so blunt a brush. This is not a film about an aspiring artist yearning for the academy. She has a hobby she finds a lot of fulfillment and a sense of personal comfort in, as many of us should hope to. It is part of her larger character.
Someone with a lot going on in her life, which she is trying to make sense of as the war draws ever closer to home.
Something which is tough to get across about this film in plain text is how casual, if not outright amusing, a lot of it is. And yet it is such an enormous part of how effective the entire story is at succeeding.
Large chunks of the movie have more in common with a daily life sitcom than a drama. Air raid siren events transitioning from a source of fear to inconvenience to what may as well be a boring high school fire alarm. And the explosions from those air raids sure killed a lot of fish in the bay, so that means some extra meat beyond the ration allowances. What a great day!
Granted, that one is on the darkest end of its comedy spectrum. But it is illustrative of the situation Suzu, her new family, and the surrounding community finds themselves in. A single air raid is an alarming personal crisis. But past a certain point? One may not even want to bother to get out of bed. It becomes the most annoying cicada in the world.
The family interactions have a lot of great give and take, as their personal emotional waves crest and fall to different events. Suzu’s sister-in-law, Keiko, is a real standout in this department. Right from her terse introduction she strikes the viewer as filling a routine antagonistic in-law role. But she shatters every part of that stereotype. Not through one big moment of change, but a series of routine daily interactions with their own highs and lows. She has shifting moments of support, fury, humor, and consideration throughout.
The progression of the story flows like a journal. It advances chapters with prominent displays of days and years. This always presents a risk of character moments feeling too rushed or too hectic, but its speed is well regulated. Sometimes we are progressing by days for more granular impact and development, other times months. Of course, days can feel like months too.
And in the back of any viewers minds, those dates are also a countdown.
Kure will be spared atomic vaporization.
But its little corner does give it front row seats, as the characters process what a world like that even means.
The current version of In This Corner Of The World clocks in around 129 minutes. As of this writing, an expanded cut featuring an additional half hour is in development and preparing for release in 2019.
This will place the movie within extreme striking distance of Final Yamato’s 163 minutes, the longest animated film ever made. How close it will come to that record line is still anyone’s guess. The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya came to a halt at 162 minutes, which at a certain point may even be harder than outright beating the record.
I can not tell you what the future may bring.
I can not know when you may be reading this.
I can not know what you have going on in your life, or how you may be feeling right now.
But I can tell you this.
In This Corner Of The World, as it exists in its current form, was still very kind to me. I welcomed meeting its textured characters and seeing their relationships develop. I appreciated its mindfulness towards familial levity, and using it to both set up and attempt to heal dramatic circumstances.
I was very much aware of Sunao Katabuchi’s exhaustive research to make everything from the train schedules and weather to a railing on a building facade as accurate as possible to the historical record. The most exhaustive recreation effort of this area as it once looked, while there are still people will those memories to consult. And yet the film never grinds the story of its characters to a halt, demanding technical or critical praise for this. I do not think a viewer needs to know a bit of that going in to enjoy the result.
Katabuchi and his production team built the movie equivalent of a model clockwork city, like the kind which takes over an entire living room. Most of our camera time spent on but a few streets of this, and always coming back to a single house. A single family of that massive enterprise.
There are a lot of prestige tier World War II films I feel little pull to revisit, outside of very specific circumstances. Something like watching the complete works of a director in chronological order. So many get tied up in the large moments crafted for the large orchestra. The grandness of grand armies. The bigness of big event dates. The miserable misery of the miserable.
This time, I already know I will watch this movie again someday. And much sooner than later.
I suppose now my personal copy, at long last, has been called to move away from where it once lived and on to their new home. A different shelf, a few rows over.
They may have been wondering where they belong for a quite long time.