Hausu's Nobuhiko Obayashi starts wrapping up his 60-year career in filmmaking with a deeply weird, compellingly stream-of-consciousness wartime drama.
Nobuhiko Obayashi is one of Japan’s veteran suppliers of the weird and fantastical – despite a career spanning nearly forty films, his most famous international export is 1977’s kaleidoscopic, goofy horror film House (Hausu). To film Hausu, he had to stop development of his planned adaptation of Kazuo Dan’s wartime novel Hanagatami; now, at the ripe age of 80, and in remission for stage four cancer, he’s revisited that project, and come away with maybe his weirdest, most ambitious film yet.
Opening with an acknowledgement of the film’s literary origins and the biographical nature of the book to its author, Hanagatami slides quickly into a fascinating stream-of-consciousness WW2-era narrative involving Toshihiko (Shunsuke Kubozuka), returning home to Japan in 1937 from living with his parents in Amsterdam. He makes friends with three of his schoomates – the limping cynic Kira (Keishi Nagatsuka), clumsy class clown Aso (Tokio Emoto) and the hunky Ukai (Shinnosuke Mitsushima), with whom he has a close relationship Obayashi paints as at least vaguely homoerotic. (If you can call stripping naked and riding a horse bareback along the beach together ‘vague.’)
Obayashi came up as a commercial director, and even in his twilight period Hanagatami showcases the kind of playful messing with cinematic conventions that made Hausu so intriguing. Nothing about this film looks ‘normal’ – blatantly obvious green-screens abound, the film swaps out color and orientation of its own shots on a dime, and irises and wipes are used with the frequency of a 70s sitcom, or 90s anime. Between its performances, frenetic editing, and Obayashi’s curious shot choices, you’d be forgiven for confusing this with an overlong Tim and Eric sketch.
The performances bear that sense of surrealism, too; all the main characters, ostensibly high school-aged, are consciously cast with actors who are definitely pushing 30, if not encroaching on middle age. Much like with the green screen, it’s a deliberately uncanny effect, something Obayashi uses to help craft this extravagant, dreamlike world.
To what end does Obayashi commit this nearly three-hour-long exercise in narrative absurdism? Strangely enough, Hanagatami is unabashedly sincere about its antiwar pretensions – it’s a big, silly cartoon about the horrors of war, and the pathos of “those young men who struggled to live during wartime.” Toshihiko and his friends know that war is just around the corner, and they’ll be conscripted to fight it; their youth and innocence could be dashed upon the rocks any moment. To that end, they content themselves with the emotional intensity of the present, their lives a sea of picnics and luxurious dinners at the lovely home of Toshihiko’s aunt Keiko (Takako Tokiwa).
That sense of impending doom is borne out through some of Obayashi’s more effective flights of fancy, including an army of white-faced Japanese soldiers marching merrily along the fields of Saga Prefecture, cheered on by singing children. It’s an image straight out of Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams, but no less effective as a portent of the ruined futures of an entire generation of young Japanese men. The war itself remains ominously in the background, but when Obayashi’s presentational nature manifests the conflict (images of bombers and mushroom clouds floating up like a Katamari Damacy cutscene), it manages to be just as arresting.
This isn’t to say the film’s completely effective; your patience for Obayashi’s frenetic style might not extend to all three hours, and the middle third is especially draggy as it focuses on the more convoluted aspects of Hanagatami’s already dense narrative. It’s the kind of movie that lends itself to complete surrender to its bold visual choices, but that can only take you so far. If Hausu were this long, it might not have achieved the cult following it currently enjoys.
However, as strange as it may seem for a movie with such a playful style, Hanagatami has more to say than that. It’s a strident antiwar screed masquerading as a schoolgirl anime, Ivan’s Childhood by way of Yu Yu Hakusho. But for all its eye-popping music video weirdness, there’s a deep core of humanism to Hanagatami’s story of children doing their damndest to maintain their innocence as the world crumbles around them. Just as a single rose petal turns to blood when it hits the ground, Obayashi’s giddy aesthetic highlights, rather than masks, the cold realities of war. If this ends up being the man’s final feature, it’s a hell of an ambitious note to go out on.
This review is part of our remote coverage of Fantasia Festival 2018 – get tickets at fantasiafestival.com.