The only time that an animated movie will ever be made with the raw emotional potency of Takahata Isao's Grave of the Fireflies, for Studio Ghibli, it will be at the very end of the universe, since two such profound motion pictures could not co-exist. Still, Katabuchi Sunao's In this Corner of the World comes unbelievably close to matching that film, and one day, I think they might make a very effective double feature. Effective at making you feel like crying yourself to death, but effective.

Before we get into that, the film is the story of a girl who grows up to be a young woman in Japan in the 1930s. We first meet Urano Suzu (Nonen Rena) as an eight-year-old in 1933, in the small seaside town of Eba, just south of Hiroshima, telling her sister Sumi (Han Megumi) a fairy tale set on the bridge in the city. Accompanying this story, Suzu has drawn playful sketches, and for the next ten years, we watch her grow up and continue to nurture her artist's eye. In 1943, Suzu marries Hojo Shusaku (Hosoya Yoshimasa), who takes her to live with his family in Kure, southwest over the mountains, where he works in the military court attached to the navy shipyard. The job of serving as a dutiful wife in a traditional family, and helping to hold the family homestead together during the last years of the war, both take Suzu away from her dreams of being an artist, though she remains alert to the qualities of light, texture, and shape that define the world around her.

Taking up this perceptual specificity, the film surrounding Suzu literalises the idea of "the world the way an artist sees it", resulting in one of the most beautiful animated films in many years. Very nearly every background is done in watercolors or the digital version thereof (at least a couple of times, the background moves with dimensionality that could only be the result of a fully CGI environment, but the illusion of soft, diffuse watercolors remains intact), and the characters are drawn with the minimal definition of line drawings, just enough to give every one of them instantly-recognisable features, but not to otherwise imply that they're three-dimensional.

Every so often, this base level of stylisation erupts into something truly extraordinary: Suzu's vision of a school friend watching waves crest like white rabbits jumping, and the image turning fully into a painting; her adult experience watching the American bombs in the sky as paint splotches festively decorating the sky. But even in its basic, idling position, In This Corner of the World looks quite extraordinary, using the medium of animation to turn the world into fine art for its entire running time, and resembling no other film I can name (the closest analogue I can come up with, in both the softness of the backgrounds and the vagueness of the characters, is Takahata's Only Yesterday, at least in its flashback scenes. So that's two incredible Takahata/Studio Ghibli masterpieces that this film evokes). And while I'd have no complaints if this was just amazingly beautiful, the beauty serves a very specific purpose, to fully integrate our understanding of the film's world with Suzu's, as she stumbles through the difficult business of becoming an adult during one of the worst moments in all of human history to do so.

That's the other thing that makes In This Corner of the World so extraordinarily important and good. It's a great work of animation, irreducibly so, and I wouldn't want to see it in live-action or even speculate what that might look like. But Katabuchi and Uratani Chie's script, adapted from Kono Fumiyo's 2007-'09 manga series (which was previously made into live-action film, as it so happens - I still don't want to know what it looks like), is an extremely powerful piece of storytelling regardless of the medium. Homefront stories about civilian life in Japan between 1937 and 1945 are hardly common, so there's already the mere novelty of seeing a family attempt to carry on like nothing's happening as the world falls down around them, in a very different idiom than the seemingly endless American, British, and French stories on the same theme.

But the human appeal of In This Corner of the World goes much beyond that, owing largely to how vivid Suzu is as a character, and how fully the film delves into the day-to-day details of the life of a young wife dealing with kindly but demanding in-laws, and the not-so-kindly sister-in-law Keiko (Omi Minori), who is desperately trying to remain strong despite a series of crippling blows to her personal life. From its very first minutes, the film uses on-screen text to situate us in every new moment as the 12 years of the plot go by, acting as something like a chronicle that neatly mimics the diary-style presentation of the incidents in Suzu's life. It's a highly effective use of episodic structure, and would be fine even if In This Corner of the World was nothing but a coming-of-age story about a woman who married too young and had to find herself afterward.

But of course it's not, and from the minute that the word "Hiroshima" is first said out loud, the dates are doing double-duty: counting up the evolution of one young woman's life, and countdown down to 6 August, 1945, a date that approaches with unyielding steadiness, though as we get closer to that point, the action starts telescoping in: the titles go from setting the year, to the year and the month, to the specific day, stretching out the passage of time and emphasising the increasing chaos and violence of life during wartime.

The film is never less than great, but it grows increasingly weighty as the clock winds further and further down. Heaven save me from spoiling what happens - the atomic bomb, obviously, but both the increasing American bombing activity prior to that, and the reactions of the Japanese citizenry afterwards have specific ramifications in the characters' lives. One death, weeks before Hiroshima dies in a nuclear holocaust, is even more gutting than the A-bomb itself, presented in a highly poetic, almost abstract way that gains some of its impact simply from how unexpected it is: the moment's so beautiful that it doesn't seem right that something so horrible happens at the same time.

Eventually, the narrowly-focused character study expands into a brief story about how the people of Japan needed to unify in order to survive and rebuild after the war, but even this is still ultimately about Suzu; the final stage in her growth from individual to family member to member of society writ large. At any rate, it's incredibly moving, with an entirely undiluted depiction of the suffering and devasation of Japan in the fall of 1945 that, if it can't match Grave of the Fireflies for sheer soul-crushing grief, fails to do so only because the aesthetic cushions us here slightly more than in that film.

It's a profound thing, moving from joy to misery and ending with a statement of certain optimism that survivors can continue to survive. It's only Katabuchi's third feature, after 2001's Princess Arete and 2009's Mai Mai Miracle, along with a fair number of TV episodes; if the world is just, we'll be hearing a lot more from him in the future, because a film of this poignancy, beauty, and emotional weight absolutely deserves a follow-up, or two, or ten.