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
Martial-arts fighters with lightning moves, the clang of swords, the whoosh of garments, special effects and. . . puppets?
Does that ring a bell? Fantasia International Film Festival veterans might remember a wonderful gem from Taiwan called The Legend of the Sacred Stone. For me, it was one of the most impressive films at Fantasia in 2000. Well, the organization behind that film, the Huang family’s Pili Puppetry, is back at Fantasia with The Arti: The Adventure Begins. (奇人密碼－古羅布之謎)
The Arti of the title is actually Arti-C, a wood and metal mechanical man with movable eyebrows and Astroboy ankles. He is like a sibling and a servant for brother-sister orphans Zhang Mo and Zhang Tong, and he’s controlled by a sort of wearable console on Mo’s arm.
The film is set in ancient China and contains many familiar themes, in addition to the orphan one. For example: being outcasts/misunderstood while carrying on a father’s work, a desire to restore the family honour and that father’s reputation, going on an adventure to unfamiliar and dangerous lands. The younger sister, Tong, is the “feisty female character” who is quite handy with weapons herself. Mo looks a bit like a manga character, with his hair falling fashionably in his face.
The Arti-C runs on a mysterious power called The Origin, which seems to be petering out. So Mo, Tong and the Arti-C go searching for The Origin’s source. While they are still at the local market, which seems like quite a multinational sort of place, a red-haired woman named Kameedia just blatantly invites herself along on their adventure.
In the course of that adventure, they will cross a desert, ride giants camels and insects, get caught in a sandstorm, visit the luxurious palace of the King of Loulan, enter the Arti-C in a martial-arts tournament against many impressive foes, and meet several scary creatures, human and otherwise.
There’s an environmental message, and a “why can’t we all get along” one, too. Before I read any background material about the film, I could tell that Avatar was one of its inspirations.
Stick around when the credits start to roll and you’ll see the creation of the puppets, the sets (some with green-screen backdrops), scenes being shot, and some of the many, many people involved in making the film. The Arti: The Adventure Begins seems to indicate the possibilities of sequels if this first film is popular enough.
BTW and FYI: I was curious about the history of mechanical men. While researching that, I came across an interesting article on a Stanford University web site. The title is Man-machine and Artificial Intelligence and it’s written by Bruce Mazlish. It’s adapted from Mazlish’s own book, The Fourth Discontinuity: The Co-evolution of Humans and Machines, Yale University Press, 1993.
Here’s a paragraph from that article: “The wealth of mechanical toys cited in ancient China is awesome. In addition to the flying machine mentioned earlier, mechanized doves and angels, fish, and dragons abounded; automated cup-bearers and wine-pourers were prominent; and hydraulically-moved boats, carrying figures of singing girls, animals, and men in motion are said to have amused the emperors. Of particular interest are the chariots that moved of themselves-auto-mobiles-attributed by legend to the scientist Mo Ti in the fourth century BC. Were they actually wheelbarrows, or “pedicarts”? A mechanical man of jade is reported, as well as all kinds of wooden dolls, gold Buddhist statues, and puppet orchestras.”
Is the Mo Ti mentioned here the same Mo of the film? Maybe not, but maybe the name was inspired by him?
The Arti: The Adventure Begins, will be shown once, on Sunday, July 19, 2015, at 13:00 (1 p.m.) in the Hall Theatre, 1455 de Maisonneuve Blvd. W., in downtown Montreal. The monsters aren’t so scary that you couldn’t take your children!
The Arti: The Adventure Begins
Sci-Fi / Fantasy/ Animation, Taiwan, 2015,102 min, DCP, Mandarin, with English subtitles
Director: Huang Wen Chang
Screenplay: Huang Liang Hsun
Voice cast: Huang Wen Tze, Ricky Hsiao, A-Lin
Company: Golden Network
The Fantasia International Film Festival runs from July 14-Aug. 4, 2015. Read more about the festival at fantasiafestival.com/2015/