The death of innocence: how Hiroshima haunted anime

In 2016, one of anime’s most successful years at the world box office to date, Sunao Katabuchi’s In This Corner of the World depicted the life of a young woman in the lead-up to the war, its apotheosis and Japan’s eventual defeat. Rather than focus on the political intricacies of the conflict, it instead centred on the people caught in the middle.

As with Ushiro no Shoumen Daare, In This Corner of the World follows a carefree girl, Suzu, whose forgetfulness and detachment from reality is a constant target of teasing. The movie, although based on true events, is a work of fiction. The original manga was penned by Fumiyo Kouno who, born in 1968, had never lived through the events she depicted. This was subsequent generations dealing with the trauma of their elders.

Making sense of suffering through art

Filling in the gaps in her memory, Suzu turns to pencil and paper, where she doodles her own narrative based on what she sees around her. In 1945, Suzu, aged 18, is swept off her feet by a suitor and moves from her Hiroshima City home to the nearby naval port of Kure City. Anyone familiar with Japanese history will know this was where the iconic Yamoto spent much of 1943-44, until it was sunk. Looking down over the port, the sight of the battleship filled Suzu with a wonder soon punctured by bullets and fire.

During an early air raid on the port, Suzu watches the American planes criss-cross the skies, the distant clouds of smoke and shrapnel. She sees the panorama as paper or canvas, the explosions ink spots or coloured brushstrokes. Earlier she’s accosted by military police for drawing the port and its ships with accusations of espionage. Some time after, she’s caught in the explosion of a bomb, in which she loses her right hand and the life of her young niece. This moment in the film is a departure from the animation we’ve grown used to. It is a breakdown of art, as its usual rendering isn’t equipped to process or convey this tragedy. Instead, the screen is smudged black with flickering chalk drawings scattering inconsequential events with the moment the bomb explodes over and over, connecting this war-torn Japan with Suzu’s own past of scrawling on pavements. As she later reflects and mourns the loss of her hand, the room is rendered in wonky lines and blemishes, as if drawn by her left hand.

Suzu breaking down

Of course, set in and around Hiroshima, the audience knows the outcome, and so we wait for the inevitable. From fifteen miles away, the bomb is but a flash, with the colour draining from the screen for a moment, a scene so different from Suzu’s bright childlike painting of an ocean of white rabbits. A few seconds of rumbling follows. In the days after, artefacts and objects fall from the sky, carried from Hiroshima by the explosion. The family discuss the bomb in simple terms, a little detached from reality themselves. There are no words, and the radio heralds the end of the war.

A Suzu more like her younger self visits the bombsite and what remains of the city with the full knowledge of her family’s death, save for her sister who is slowly succumbing to radiation sickness. A feeble child leaves the rotting body of her mother and finds Suzu who takes the girl home, seeking forgiveness, perhaps, for the loss of her niece. The film ends with the families of Kure letting their homes fill with light without fear of air raids. The war is over. The country can heal. But the presence of this film alone shows that old wounds are still a source of pain.

In the final instalment, we’ll look at the post-war generation both at narratives from the sixties and seventies and modern series that explore that period.

Notes and references

For Ushiro no Shoumen Daare, I was working with plot synopses and the un-subbed Japanese audio of the movie, so if there’s any plot errors, let me know in the comments.

A short but fascinating piece on Barefoot Gen over at The Geek Show provided some key background and contextual information.

About Dominic (86 Articles)
Journalist, author and Star Wars fan.

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