I had to see the Nobuhiko Obayashi’s film Hanagatami because I had been gobsmacked by his 1977 film House (Hausu). That incredibly weird outing features a jealous ghost, a maniacal cat, carnivorous furniture and disembodied body parts flying around, playing the piano, etc.
Evidently, others at the Fantasia Festival felt the same way, because the De Seve theatre was packed, despite the film’s 169 minute running time.
The story is set in 1941, though it is based on a book by Kazuo Dan that was published in 1937. Obayashi has wanted to make it for the last 40 years.
The teenager Toshihiko Sakakiyama (Shunsuke Kubozuka) leaves Amsterdam, where he had been living with his parents, and returns to the coastal city of Karatsu,
Japan, to go to high school. His aunt Keiko (Takako Tokiwa) and cousin Mina (Honoka Yahagi) live there, too. The pale and slender Mina, who often wears lacy white dresses, is slowly dying of tuberculosis, like a Victorian heroine.
So, it’s 1941. The Japanese attack on the U.S. Navy at Pearl Harbour is yet to come, but Japan had been occupying Manchuria since 1931 and fighting what we call the Second Sino-Japanese War since 1937. Aunt Keiko is a war widow. At that time, Japanese men had to register for military service at 20. So while Toshihiko and his classmates enjoy exploring the area, days at the beach, picnics, dinners, and an autumn festival, sometimes in the company of Mina and her friends, it’s only a matter of time before before the will be fed to the war machine.
Hanagatami is a deadly serious anti-war film, but it’s bursting with quirks, too. It took my brain a few minutes to adjust to all that. The actors often over-emote, in very theatrical way, with both their facial expressions and their physical movements. That made me think of dreams, hallucinations and silent films, depending on the scene.
While Toshihiko is a teenager, actor Shunsuke Kubozuka was in his mid-30s when he played the role. The actors playing his classmates were in their late 20s. This also has a theatrical effect and makes them seem old before their time, or somehow outside of time entirely.
Directed by: Nobuhiko Obayashi
Written by: Nobuhiko Obayashi, Chiho Katsura
Cast: Shunsuke Kubozuka, Honoka Yahagi, Shinnosuke Mitsushima, Keishi Nagatsuka, Takako Tokiwa, Tokio Emoto, Hirona Yamazaki, Mugi Kadowaki, Takehiro Murata
In Japanese with English subtitles
169 minutes long