Directed by Makoto Shinkai
In This Corner of the World
Directed by Sunao Katabuchi
WATCHED Makoto Shinkai’s Your Name out of curiosity. Everyone hailed the movie like a messiah descended from heaven to unleash upon the world his holy greatness.
Is Your Name the work of a messiah?
Movie opens with a comet streaking across the mesosphere; the comet calves with a bright red chunk smashing into the Earth. Cue opening theme from RADWIMPS.
With Makoto Shinkai in the directing-and-writing chair you expect the standard Shinkai plot — teenage boy (Taki) and teenage girl (Mitsuha, but, really, you could swap in other names) separated by distance, boy wants girl to love him but struggles to say something. Shinkai delivers, but can’t resist adding a gimmick: body swapping.
I enjoyed the body swapping; I enjoy experiencing the normal life of a member of the opposite sex, even if this is a trope as old as Freaky Friday (1972). To his credit, Shinkai weaves in a bit of Japanese folklore — the musubi as metaphor for time, the red thread of fate tangling and unraveling the main characters’ fates together. Complex stuff, until a comet impacts Itomori.
Cue the melodrama and seriousness, the humor hoovered away like so much dirt.
Leads me to wonder: why is this swapping happening to Taki? What is Taki’s interest in Mitsuha, other than mashing her breasts? Why is Taki’s backstory unexplored (we get a brief glimpse of his dad and that’s it?)? Why is the spit-sake ritual at the center of the movie necessary?
Shinkai shrugs and expects you to figure things out with the help of vague hints such as unconscious crying (Taki waking with tears in his eyes). Whether the hints help or not — good luck.
By the end the movie’s plot unravels like a kitten’s ball of twine, patched together with duct tape and positive thinking rather than woven with steady skill.
Which ultimately doesn’t matter. What matters is the honeyed sentimentality clogging the movie like mucus in a phlegmy throat. Shinkai throws everything at the audience, kitchen sink included; he gives new meaning to the word “shameless” — at one point forcing Mitsuha to suspend her elaborate plan to evacuate the endangered town and run up a mountaintop for a sunset face-to-face with Taki. Why? For the melodrama. The feels. The chance to sell you his very last glass of heavily sugared lemonade, for that very last dollar bill in your wallet.
As for RADWIMPS — even the name grates. A band that thinks it’s “rad” when really it plays the same J-pop sorghum found in every other Japanese romcom. They don’t even sound like angry teens, more like lonely geeks caterwauling at their involuntary celibacy.
If you consider this to be Shinkai’s greatest take on romance, if you think Shinkai is at all skilled at romance, I have a bridge in Brooklyn I want to sell you.
Later watched Sunao Katabuchi’s In This Corner of the World — another love story set mostly in wartime Japan. Young Suzu Urano’s hand is given in arranged marriage to court martial clerk Shusaku Houjo; she moves with him to his home in Kure, and attempts to adjust to life her new family as the Pacific War rages far from home.
The romance may sound stereotypical, a honey trap much like Shinkai’s; Katabuchi derails expectations with an arranged marriage, the wedding more like a funeral. Any feelings groom and bride have for each other feel awkward, unnatural, love by fiat rather than feeling.
Suzu may be an amateur artist and dreamer, may at first glance look like one of Shinkai’s syrupy idealists. Eventually Katabuchi makes clear that she’s too much of a dreamer — she first meets her future spouse as a child on a bridge, but interprets the meeting as a kidnapping by scary monster. They escape when she pastes stars on telescope lenses and tricks him into looking; the constellations prompt him to fall asleep. That’s just one of her more harmless fantasies, though as a result the boy she meets grows up to become the husband she’s stuck with.
Childhood fantasy or implied psychological disorder aside, her life is too serene, too disconnected — even as the war comes closer she and her in-laws seem above it all.
If anything, the real conflict in the film is the conflict of belonging. Suzu herself seems alienated from the Houjo family and Kure for much of the film. The Houjo household in turn doesn’t seem to care about the war; they bicker over who picks up rations, who cooks, who does laundry. There are meetings and lectures that no one seems to listen to; Suzu belatedly remembers something she heard at one point, about a delayed-timer bomb, but too late to do anything about it.
Then come the air raids and firesticks, the anti-aircaft flak that Katabuchi depicts as bright paint spattering across a breathlessly blue sky. The innocence, the illusion of peace is shattered; the realities of war arrive at the Houjo household and like a bad guest refuses to leave.
Of course, August 6th, 1945 looms over the household and surrounding town (Kure is next to Hiroshima). Its promised advent informs the film’s leisurely pacing and melancholy tone.
While the film ends on a hopeful note you can’t help but wonder if maybe there’s a touch of nihilism in the message. After all, the nation Suzu knows is gone — the nation that nurtured her family and her marriage now making way for the American occupation. Even the closing credits sketching scenes of a happy family are drawings from a hand lost in the war. Was it worth all that suffering?
One might compare Katabuchi’s film to Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies — but I contend that they are two entirely different creatures. Grave of the Fireflies was released in 1988 at the end of the Showa era, which had reigned since WWII, for a generation that still remembers the bomb. In This Corner of the World from 2016 is a film for a new generation, with a more feminist focus — the women have more prominent roles on the homefront.
Also different are the pace and overall ideas — Grave undermined the idea of military privilege and Japan’s invincibility simply, directly, with no holds barred. Corner focuses on the dreary task of survival, and the way dreariness eats away at people’s spirits, at the same time celebrating their ability to persist.
Shinkai can stun the eyes with breathtaking photorealism, can engage audiences with fantasy romances, but every movie he makes feels like a fundraiser ending with him on his knees begging for your tears. If anything Shinkai treats his characters, his women especially, as plot devices and cheap fanservice, jiggling breasts, tight jeans, and all. Katabuchi paints a patient portrait of life in wartime Japan, from its mundanity to insanity. Katabuchi never shies away from the harder implications. He doesn’t beg but suggests, leaving everything up to you to observe, analyze, feel. Shinkai is all about the profits, Katabuchi all about the artist.