Japanese film visionary completes antiwar trilogy against odds
Legendary director Nobuhiko Obayashi unveils Hanagatami, the culmination of a 40-year dream and a project carried out whilst he was undergoing treatment for cancer
“A courageous man acts quietly,” says one character in the extraordinary new film Hanagatami, by 79-year-old Nobuhiko Obayashi. But the director himself demonstrates a different type of bravery altogether.
The legendary creator of House, the 1977 comedy-horror extravaganza that brought him to sudden global renown some 32 years after its release, Obayashi has been exceedingly prolific in the third act of his career.
He has received critical acclaim for recent works such as Casting Blossoms to the Sky (2012) and Seven Weeks (2014) — which together form an antiwar trilogy of sorts with Hanagatami — and has been internationally feted with career retrospectives and a handful of lifetime achievement awards.
Drawing on his own memories of World War II, he has also become increasingly vocal about the role of filmmakers as messengers of peace, believing their work must convey the urgency of today’s political situation in Japan, which he calls “very dangerous,” to young cinemagoers.
His new masterwork realizes a 40-year dream to bring Naoki Prizewinner Kazuo Dan’s 1937 novella Hanagatami to the big screen, and it’s no exaggeration to view it as the culmination of Obayashi’s many impulses and obsessions, his magnum opus. It is also a cautionary tale of epic proportions.
Set in early 1941, it explores the hopes and fears of teens in the small castle town of Karatsu, on the bucolic western coast of Kyushu. Its protagonist, an ebullient 17-year- old (a stand-in for the director himself), has just returned from living in Europe and is filled with wide eyed wonder. Yet his carefree existence is soon imperiled, as Japan marches inexorably toward war. He reacts in the only way he can, by participating in parties and picnics with his friends, bonding fiercely in the face of the inevitable. The boys know that all too soon they will be sucked into the chaos of battle, and so each coming-of-age moment is celebrated with a gusto bordering on the desperate.
Those familiar with his singular work will not be surprised to learn that Hanagatami is trademark Obayashi, fairly bursting at the seams with staggeringly inventive visuals, a dazzlingly dense narrative, kinetic editing and an elaborately looped soundtrack. A visual, aural and metaphorical feast, it is also marked by unbridled joie de vivre, and explodes with youthful vigor.
That creative energy startles because, as everyone in Japan now knows, the director learned he had stage-four lung cancer just before going into production in 2016, and was told he had only six months to live. That he finished the film is remarkable enough. That he underwent treatment while shooting in 40 locations with a huge cast of up-and-coming actors is inconceivable.
Yet Obayashi seems to have been cured by the very process of self expression. Although he is no longer quite as robust a figure as he once was, the physical diminishment has not affected his eloquence nor quenched his passion for his vocation. Prior to a recent press screening of Hanagatami at the Foreign Correspondent’s Club of Japan in Tokyo, Obayashi chatted about the delay in making the film, the “happiness” of being diagnosed with cancer and his plans for his next feature.
He recalled, “Akira Kurosawa, who was the same age as my father and treated me like a son, told me that fruit should be eaten only when it’s ripened. He would often say that he had 30 films he wanted to make but that the proper timing would be decided by [the prevailing winds].
“Forty years ago, the script and shooting plans for Hanagatami were ready. I met Kazuo Dan and got his permission. He told me to visit Karatsu [where the film would eventually be set], so I went there with his son, Taro. But it was an economic boom time in Japan, driven by consumerism. Everyone had forgotten the war, and I realized it wasn’t the right time for the film.”
Four decades later, the prevailing winds have shifted and Obayashi has become increasingly adamant about reaching out to today’s youth, who know little of past wars but are worried about future conflicts. “They’re finally beginning to open their ears to what [the remaining survivors] have to say,” he said. “I felt that Dan’s and my father’s generation was telling me, ‘Now is the time. You have to make this film.’”
But just before he was set to begin, he got the news from his doctor. He called Taro Dan, who was working on the project with him, and to his surprise, “Taro said he [also] had stage-four lung cancer, just like his father had. He was undergoing an operation the next day. To think I shared the same disease with them made me very happy. It propelled me to realize my dream. So I say, ‘Thank you, cancer.’”
Speaking about his approach to adapting the work, Obayashi points out that, “In Dan’s novella, there is only one sentence directly referencing the war. He was not at liberty to say that he hated war and hoped for peace, because that would have instantly made him an enemy of the state in those days. Only the surface details could be communicated; the core meaning had to be read between the lines.”
Similarly eschewing a straightforward depiction, the director says he “chose a heightened approach — heightened beauty, heightened reality, heightened acting, heightened directing — to get at what is really real.”
That approach also included his selection of noticeably older actors to play the teens, because, “they know the happiness of youth as well as the sadness, and can accurately depict the soul of youth. The casting lies to get at the truth.”
And so does Hanagatami’s stream-of- consciousness style, which creates a swooning fever dream, with elaborate visual collages accompanied by swelling music and overlapping voices, driven by metaphors that are hard to parse (like the falling crimson rose petal that transforms into blood as it hits a tabletop, a recurring image that is perhaps a memento mori for the generation destroyed by WWII).
Obayashi laments that “The Japanese learned nothing from losing the war. Today’s Japanese leaders have no experience of war, but they need war and the weapons business to improve the economy. Hanagatami isn’t exactly an antiwar film; I just hate war, and I think I’ve conveyed that sentiment.”
“Hiroshima has become a major tourist site now, with Genbaku Dome-branded rice crackers and cakes, ice cream and even headache medicine”
Forging ahead, his illness apparently in remission, the irrepressible writer-director is planning yet another “not exactly antiwar film.”
“Do you realize that no film has been made that depicts the real suffering that occurs from atomic bombings?” he asked. “When Kaneto Shindo made Children of Hiroshima in 1952, he showed naked virgins dancing at the moment of the explosion, because he felt their beauty underscored the depth of the suffering.
“There have been other fiction films about atomic bombs, like Invasion USA, but none of them depict hibakusha (bomb sufferers). Hiroshima has become a major tourist site now, with Genbaku Dome-branded rice crackers and cakes, ice cream and even headache medicine.
“Shindo’s film gave me the courage to become a filmmaker. So I would like to depict the relationship between cinema, war and history in my next film.” With a beaming smile, he admits: “I just sent the script to the printer today.”
Hanagatami opens in Japan on December 16. Look for it at international festivals from early 2018 onward.