Seven Weeks (No no nanananoka)

Japan (2014) Dir. Nobuhiko Obayashi

Life is an ongoing thing – when one of us dies, the world doesn’t come to an end, it carries on with someone else picking up the baton, or filing the gap with something of their own. And a life ending after a long run has had the time to sow the seeds for the future of everyone around them.

92 year-old Mitsuo Suzuki (Toru Shinagawa), a former doctor, is found passed out by his nurse granddaughter Kanna (Saki Terashima) and gets him to hospital. By the time members of the family arrive – sister Eiko (Tokie Hidari), grandson Fuyuki (Takehiro Murata), his daughter Kasane (Hirona Yamazaki), and Kanna’s brother Akito (Shunsuke Kubozuka) – Mitsuo passes away at 2:46am, the same time his watch stopped at.

Other grandson Haruhiko (Yutaka Matsushige) and wife Setsuko (Tomoka Shibayama) arrive in time for the wake, which according to Mitsuo’s wishes follows the Buddhist tradition of a seven week mourning period. However, the arrival of Nobuko Shimizu (Takako Tokiwa), a former nurse at Mitsuo’s clinic, brings with her the mystery of the relationship with Mitsuo, and the resurfacing of lost memories for the Suzuki family. 

Anyone familiar with the works of Nobuhiko Obayashi who has yet to experience this adaptation of the novel by Koji Hasegawa, may be disarmed by the straightforward plot, given Obayashi’s reputation as a purveyor of the abstract. Worry not, Seven Weeks is every bit the visual cacophony Obayashi is noted for, with his trademark idiosyncrasies a constant factor in the presentation, even if the story is relatively uncomplicated.

The second entry in Obayashi’s War Trilogy, betwixt Casting Blossoms To The Sky, and Hanagatami, this near three-hour era-hopping opus covers many themes, explored and pondered on by the moderately sized cast. Whether it is the futility of war, social changes, the rise and fall of nuclear energy, forbidden love, or even the power of poetry, there is no shortage of subjects for the extended Suzuki clan to share an opinion on.

Set in the small northern town of Ashibetsu in Hokkadio, where local residents helped fund the film, the titular time period begins during late winter and ends with the onset of Spring. It is not just a location for the story, it is part of it, almost like a recurring cast member but more so for its own history across the years that fits in with the lives of Mitsuo, his friends, the extended Suzuki family, Nobuko, and those on the periphery.

If Mitsuo is a bridge between past and present then great-granddaughter Kasane is the one adding new steps to it. A keen historian in the making, she joins local excavations with significance to the war effort in Ashibetsu, working on a site that was once a mine run by forced Korean labour which no longer exists due to the switch to nuclear energy, which Haruhiko works in, but is quitting due to the post-Fukushima world demanding safer, renewable energy instead.

Meanwhile, another erstwhile landmark is now a “Canada Town” tourist attraction, in contrast to the Japan Mitsuo grew up in, cherished and wants preserved, though he didn’t fight for it. Flashbacks to Mitsuo’s life during the war reveal his romantic history, involving a love triangle that haunted him to the end. The war brought about bitter and divisive memories among Mitsuo’s friends at the funeral, affording Eiko a chance to educate the younger ones about it.

You may be wondering how Nobuko fits in with this, and Kanna for that matter, since there is an implied connection between them. This is one of the miracles of the script – many seemingly disparate threads are brought together and naturally, without coming across as non-sequiturs or part of a loosely related anthology. The characters do have their own stories to tell, some more than others, but the link is not Mitsuo but the world itself, and how their own part in it can have consequences for others.

Granted, Mitsuo is the catalyst, his death bringing everyone together and in doing so, they each find a way to move forward in life, a reminder that life is self-perpetuating and doesn’t end because one person dies. Per the Buddhist text at the beginning, a death is history whilst in life, when a person dies they are replaced by another person. Ashibetsu, to which Obayashi is paying tribute here, also experiences its own cycle, not just through seasonal weather but through social, political, and industrial change.

However, this seems a long way off from being realised at the start of the film, opening with one of Obayashi’s foibles of a musical group playing in a field then return to act as a buffer between chapters with no discernible connection to the story. A heavily verbose film, there are time when this feels like a live-action take on the garrulous anime series Monogatari (not a favourite of mine), in which dialogue is spewed out at 100 words per minute which quick edits and changing scenery mid sentence.

Unlike Monogatari, the cast have something relevant to say in these mini-monologues and get to the point quicker. Obayashi’s use of green screen backgrounds is once again heavily pronounced, though the natural landscapes of Ashibetsu look so gorgeous it is a shame they aren’t seen with the actors in situ more. The flashbacks afford Obayashi the chance to explore his visual creativity and abstract reverie, still anchored to his 1977 breakthrough House but with modern technology making it look a little smoother.

Were Seven Weeks not based on a novel, this might be Obayashi’s most personal film through its introspective narrative that is part-eulogy, part-hopeful outlook. Though the focus tends to wander a bit during its 171-minutes, the story is broken up into enough individual parts to provide interest to suit all sensibilities. Whether it is the history lessons, the tour through picturesque Ashibetsu or the cleverly intertwined lives of the character, this is his most emotionally satisfying film for me.


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