Japan (2017) Dir. Nobuhiko Obayashi
Very few people get to learn when their time is up, so they can prepare for taking the necessary steps for their final hurrah. Surreal Japanese director Nobuhiko Obayashi was someone afforded this privilege, so he decided his swan song would be to make the film he had wanted to make for over 45 years.
In 1941, 17 year-old student Toshihiko Sakakiyama (Shunsuke Kubozuka) returns from Amsterdam to study in the small costal town of Karatsu. He lives with his rich aunt Keiko (Takako Tokiwa), and her ailing sister-in-law Mina (Honoka Yahagi), who is dying from TB. At school, Toshihiko befriends laconic monk Kira (Keishi Nagatsuka), oddball Aso (Tokio Emoto), and dashing Ukai (Shinnosuke Mitsushima).
Through them, Toshihiko meets Kira’s melancholic cousin Chitose (Mugi Kadowaki) and Akine (Hirona Yamazaki), both also Mina’s friends. But with the war raging and an American invasion imminent after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, it could be the last summer these teenagers will spend together, as one by one the boys are drafted into the army.
Forgive me if I struggle with this review but Hanagatami is one of those films that left me so baffled and bemused that I really don’t know where to begin with it. This isn’t to say I disliked it – it is a remarkable film, even if we can disregard the circumstances under which it was made. In fact, this wasn’t Obayashi’s final film after all – he managed to make one more in 2019 before his death in 2020.
Adapted from the 1937 novel Kazuo Dan, Obayashi personally promised the author he would make a film of his work before he died, and Hanagatami was to be his debut film. This didn’t happen but after the success of the bonkers House, Obayashi planned his second attempt to make Hanagatami, but felt the timing wasn’t right for a war film. It was upon learning he had terminal cancer in 2016 with a few months to live that the project was again revived.
Whilst Obayashi wasn’t able to be present for the whole shoot, there are no signs this is the work of a director on his last legs, not in the least the near 3-hour run time. His trademark abstract creativity remains brimming with vitality and energy, the dark, often maudlin themes of the looming spectre of war taking away one’s youth at odds with the vivid colour palette are suffused with defiance. The tone may be palpably valedictorian not submissively so, as if Obayashi refuses to give in so easily.
Perhaps the first sign of this is in the casting. None of the male cast playing teenagers will ever see 30 again (one is 42!), either a dig at the Hollywood practice of casting older actors or Obayashi had a more pertinent reason for this. The presentation is heavy on the symbolism so it is likely this is related to that. It is also for this reason that the story is almost impenetrable for the first hour plus, preoccupied with world building and introducing the characters.
Essentially, the cast is small but their diverse personalities are enough to keep the story moving and the energy levels up for needlessly overlong run time. However, some have multiple layers to them that are revealed in drips or borne out by plot twists that confuse as much as change the story trajectory. Few of these bear any relation to the war, a subject not even raised in earnest until 80-minutes have passed, but still manages remain a mere catalyst for some of the obscure drama that unfolds.
Blood is a prominent leitmotif, maybe a presage of the fate that awaits the cast; I have to confess I was initially convinced this was a vampire movie not a war movie. Mina would see everything as blood, whenever red wine is drink it turns to blood, and Keiko has a habit of biting her finger to draw out the red stuff. Mina’s TB felt like a cover for her vampiric leanings and Toshihiko was her next victim; for the record, I was wildly wrong!
So what is it about? Well, I’m clearly to thick to answer this as a lot of it went over my head or was buried too deeply beneath the directionless prolix dialogue and eye-popping visuals. However, I was able to glean the basic anti-war message of how sending the young out to fight and potentially robbing them of a future is cruel obligation, not helped by the indoctrinated tenet of the Japanese that dying for their country is an honour.
Revolving around Mina’s health and her satellite friends, this turns into a sort of farewell party for this less than cohesive unit, giving them a chance to clear the air, open their hearts, and maybe even have a wish granted. Time though is fleeting, and whilst it is accepted that youth is just one stage of our existence, this is a lament for those who never get to reflect on theirs, denied by the cruelty of war.
Obayashi however, has been given the opportunity of reminiscence, hence the inclusion of some of his own memories to the script, giving this a personal feel beyond his unique visual style. Roughly 85% of the shots were done before a green screen which is poorly disguised, but enhances the ethereal vibe and lapses into dreamlike distractions. The cast are equally magnetic, giving themselves over to their quirky roles yet never betray the basic human essence within them no matter how askew it may be.
Hanagatami is unfortunately a film I wished I liked more, but one I can certainly doff my cop to and appreciate as a cinematic achievement. Even if Obayashi wasn’t running his final lap when he made it, this would still be a stunning work to behold, offering a wild trip for those willing to partake, just a little too out there for my humble brain to keep up with.
Nobuhiko Obayashi 1938 – 2020