Is there subject matter that film, as a medium, is better at capturing than others? Perhaps it is emotion. Or maybe memory. Filmmakers can examine them in many expressive ways with an incredible range of tools open to the cast and crew. Enter the adventurous Nobuhiko Obayashi, a man not shy of being creative as proven in a career that stretches back to the 1950s and features a long filmography that trades in fantasy, experimentalism, and surrealism. He is best known for the haunted house musical House (1977) but nothing will prepare those familiar solely with that fun film for Hanagatami. Those with limited experience of Obayashi should prepare for a deep dive into the precious memories of a man who lived through an age of emotional turbulence as Japan hurtled headlong into the chaos of World War II.
It is the summer of 1941 in Karatsu City, Saga Prefecture. 17-year-old Toshihiko Sakakiyama (Shunsuke Kubozuka) has just travelled from his parents’ home in Amsterdam to stay with his wealthy aunt Keiko Ema (Takako Tokiwa) in her large manor. He will share it with his sickly cousin Mina (Honoka Yahagi) who suffers from tuberculosis. While there, he is attending a school where falls under the influence of the grim and philosophical Kira (Keishi Nagatsuka) who is physically infirm, and Ukai (Shinnosuke Mitsushima), a boy both strong in body and mind and with a pure soul that attracts Toshihiko. There are girls his age, too. Kira’s cousin, the melancholy Chitose (Mugi Kadowaki) who carries a camera she loves to use to capture people’s existence and the more playful and positive Akine (Hirona Yamazaki) whose mischievous grin and compassion for others lights up all occasions.
These characters live life to the full with dinner parties, frolicking in the country and partying in the city, working hard at their parent’s restaurants and ultimately finding their personalities through each other. The intensity of their searching and discoveries gives the film its surging energy, which ratchets up with the war drawing closer and the knowledge that their lives will be changed forever…
The film is based on Kazuo Dan’s 1937 novel of the same name and Obayashi uses many cinematic techniques to capture the passions of people falling in and out of love, questioning the meaning of life, reminiscing over dead loved-ones, and railing against the seemingly relentless tide of nationalism and violence. Dialogue focuses on death and sacrifice and there’s an oppressive sense of an approaching calamity to proceedings. Physical effects and history provide a lot of atmosphere as old and new wars loom large thanks to soldiers ominously marching through multiple scenes, ghost-like in their white make-up, and, towards the end of the film, as war draws near, the dusk sky is a menacing shade of red and orange like a city on fire.
This serves as a backdrop for powerful memories that define Toshihiko’s knowledge of mortality and love, emotions heightened by cinema.
With live-action, one can only film what is real. With animation and CGI, whatever exists in one’s head can be brought to the screen. Obayashi uses it all to create a world which reflects the characters. Animation, set-design, expressionistic lighting, scene transitions such as slide cuts, match cuts and cross-cutting between sequences involving different friends show us how these passionate people living through tumultuous times feel, how they are all linked together in living life to the full and luxuriating in their good experiences and agonising over the bad. It isn’t enough to just look at someone, no. Toshihiko will gaze at Mina and be struck by her beauty as light from a bulbous moon hanging above her head strikes her in a beatific way which we see from a point-of-view low-angle shot. People do not sink or swim together in the sea, they are carried away by currents that are animated with twisting and twirling lines that surge around the actor’s bodies which are linked together in romantic rapture and shine with a strange glow. Every scene has music playing through it, a beautiful score dominated by a cello that switches from pleasant to sad depending upon what is happening.
This constant use of techniques is a double-edged sword. Green screen scenes can look awkward. Some of them are risible due to the intensity of the acting, which is deliberately theatrical and occasionally hammy. Regardless of these criticisms, it mostly works because it lends heart to everything and when the ending hits and we learn about the fate of characters, it is hard not to be moved, having tasted some of the character’s experiences.
The final result is a film that has a strong anti-war message because of its exuberant and colourful celebration of youth. It is both exhausting and exhilarating because Obayashi immerses us in the character’s emotions with imagination as they present and embellish their fatalistic and romantic behaviour through philosophy and beauty for what it is worth. Some scenes may be insufferable, others laughable, but all are passionately conveyed. The weight of memories and emotions is powerfully felt, as is the sense of being alive, together, and affecting each other.
Hanagatami is showing on July 29 at JAPAN CUTS.