By the blue lake of Annecy, the Jury award for an animated feature film went to In This Corner of the World, a poignant Japanese tale about an ordinary woman’s courage. Set in Hiroshima and the nearby rural community of Kure during World War 11 and already a Japanese Academy award-winner, the chronicle has much in common with Ethel and Ernest, the British entrant about a working-class couple in the London suburbs from the Depression to 1971. Both are adaptations. Sunao Katabuchi, the director, has brought to the screen a serialized manga (2007-2009) by Fumyo Kono, who claims Osamu Tesuka as one of her models. Directed by Roger Mainwood, the sensitive BBC production is the animated version of Raymond Briggs’ graphic novel (1993) about his parents. Film and album are also autobiographical. Born in 1934, as an only child, he is the apple of their eyes. Mainwood is known as the main animation and lay-out artist on BBC’s animations of Briggs’ The Snowman and the Snowdog.
East and West, draughtsmanship is a major theme. While Briggs’ artistic output reflects historical and cultural history, school-girl Suzu’s gift singles her out from her mates as it does from other eighteen-year old Japanese brides. She sketches on the lake side of the naval base where her husband is later posted, transforming the white-crested wavlets of a lake into little rabbits. The picture makes a youth fall for her, but the silly military suspect she is a spy. Her law- abiding family thinks this is a huge joke: what a relief! Both films balance sorrow with humour.
On the one hand, Suzu’s artwork is shown-for her, a pen is a luxury. On the other, none of Raymond’s art is on display: there is no need. The entire animation reconstitutes his tender,realistic and satirical style, British to the core. The story of his parents is like a famous English nursery rhyme: «Where are you going to, my pretty maid? Originally, the answer is :”I’m going a milking, sir”. Since the fairy-tale «sir» is of the upper-classes, no romance can come of this chance encounter. But Ethel is a lady’s maid and Ernest is a milk-man who daily delivers bottled milk to the house. Socially compatible, they marry and live happily for forty-one years, then, within months of each other, they die.
The animated film duo shares two distinct pitches. The narrative thread is that of quiet lives as models of peace in a strife-torn world. On a sociohistorical level, the fortunes of the Briggs represent the lot of the British worker. From the tail-end of the Depression, through the relative security of the Welfare State in Great Britain, and, together with the other industrial countries, through the post- war economic boom ending in 1973 with the first oil shock, their lives reflect a stability which seems unlikely to reappear in a near future.
A homage in exquisite pastel shades, In This Corner of the World, portrays Suzu Urano’s steadfastnesss, echoing the virtues of Ethel and Ernest. The fierce shelling of the naval port corresponds to the Londoners’ living through the Blitz. Both films deal with with neighborly curiosity, but also with support following painful loss. After the war, the Londoners dance in the street, as in Boorman’s Hope and Glory.The devastation caused on August 6 th 1945 reminds us how it affected the great animators Takahata and Miyazaki. Former enemies, the countries now respond through the medium of art and animation.
In a live prologue, an elderly gentleman representing Raymond Briggs (Luke Treadaway’s voice) pours milk into his tea. The mythical «cuppa» is a gesture of transmission from one who as a teenager shocked his Mum and Dad by preferring Slade to Oxbridge. A voice-over tells us his parents were not remarkable; this ensures their appeal to the viewers especially as «played» by Brenda Blethyn and Jim Broadbent. Bent on improving their property?Ethel is thrilled to get an office-job!?, they witness the rise of Hitler, the Germano- Russian pact, Chamberlain’s efforts, Churchill’s guidance and Attlee’s social reforms. Ethel’s comments on the vagaries of socialism have a prophetic ring. Ultimately, there is the common theme of the sun going down on empires.
The house with « modern conveniences» marks the change to urban living. Raymond’s choice to live with his shy wife in what Ethel describes as a ruin points forward to alternate life-styles. The parents take pride in their redbrick two-storey serial house with the garden patch enclosed by wrought iron railings. With an innate sense of worth, Ethel regrets the sacrifice of such artisanry to the making of artillery. Air-raid shelters, eking out food rations, and the change in dress are themes in both films. Common sense and looking at the bright side are the hallmarks of the families, not forgetting the complementary personalities of those who cohabit. Ernest’s purchase of a car points to mobility and upward mobility and compensates the store Ethel sets by security. Although institutions like the Grammar School interest the Briggs, the sole religious icon in the animation is the glimpse of St. Paul’s Cathedral. Ethel and Ernest form a lay couple. Marriage, birth, growth, old age and death scan the plot, yet the only mention of religion is Ethel’s disappointed remark when Raymond and his bride make do with a registry office ceremony: «Church is nicer». Conversely, the mise en scene of Ethel’s dementia combines powerful emotional undercurrents and bold strokes. On learning that her son’s wife must remain childless because of schizophrenia, the uneducated Ethel compassionately translates : «She’s mental».
A similar secular outlook applies to the Japanese animation. There is no obvious sign of shintoist or buddhist practice, rather the traditional respect due to the older generations and to in-laws, worthy of a live film by Mikio Naruse. Apart from a remark about the helplessness of her female employers, or a side glance at the IRA, Ethel and Ernest show no racial prejudice. Perhaps they see little reason to do so ! Animation effectively conveys the horrors of nuclear bomb and the nuclear fall-out in Japan through grey colours and life-less postures. Ethel resists the temptation to enter the posh tea-rooms after the war and when she loses her mind, she repeats «I am a lucky girl». If then you would like to try something nice, do it! YOU ONLY LIVE ONCE! On receiving his Crystal trophy, Katabuchi expressed the hope that this brave Japanese woman would live in the hearts of people around the world. We think she will.
Edited by Yael Shuv
© FIPRESCI 2017