“As life is evoked as fleeting, moments of happiness quickly passing by, why invest in war, as peace is so much more beautiful and rewarding. This, and nothing else, is the powerful moving message of Hanagatami.”
If there is a theme that often reappears in Nobuhiko Obayashi’s oeuvre, it is the impact of war. While this theme was already present in his very first full-length feature House (1977), which has to read as a symbolic expression of the destruction of the A-bomb, this theme seems to have become a more urgent matter for him in the last couple of years. Kono Sora no Hana, a narrative he directed in 2012, concerned the bombing of Nagaoka, and No No Nanananoka, which he made two years later, handled Japan’s wartime responsibility.
With Hanagatami, a project Obayashi abandoned 40 years ago to make House instead and his third anti-war movie in a row, Obayashi once again underlines his personal motivation to carry out the dream and philosophy of the late Akira Kurosawa: to achieve world peace with the power of the cinematographical narrative (General-note 1). This time, by adapting Kazuo Dan’s first book Hanagatami, which was in turn inspired by the Noh-drama of the same name, Obayashi focuses on the young people who struggled to live in wartime.
Spring, 1941. The 17-year old Toshihiko Sakakiyama (Shunsuke Kubozuka) returns from Amsterdam to Japan to settle in the city of Karatsu. At Karatsuhama college, three fellow students immediately catch his eye due to their eccentricity, Ukai (Shinnosuke Mitsushima), the zen-monk-like philosopher Kira (Keishi Nagatsuka), and Aso (Tokio Emoto), the good-hearted class clown.
Toshihiko’s aunt Keiko (Takako Tokiwa) and her daughter Mina (Honoka Yahagi), who is suffering from tuberculosis, also live in Karatsu and provide company and a place to stay whenever Toshihiko feels lonely at the Taikoso dormitory. Eventually, he also meets Mina’s friends Akine (Hirona Yamazaki), whose family runs an izakaya in town, and Kira’s cousin Chitose (Mugi Kadowaki).
Hanagatami is a narrative that thrives on the duality of life as such. At one side, by fleetingly framing the joys of eating, friendship and family, and those moments of budding eroticism, the narrative underlines the aspect of Eros, that aspect of life so important to our functioning within society. This aspect of Eros is symbolized most vividly by Ukai’s character and is contrasted with the aspect of Thanatos that Kira – note the obvious resonance with the English word killer – unravels (Narra-note 1). It is indeed through the character Kira that the other side, that illogical side as caused by humanity, is poignantly evoked for the first time. As a character, he points to that traumatic real that, in most cases, remains hidden behind our imaginary pleasure – pleasure acting as a necessary but hypocritical blindness and defense against the real.
At another level, his “revelation” foresees the main thematic thread of the narrative: the looming impact of the war. If there is something that the many poetic evocative images (for example the recurring motive of blood) and the explicit references to war incessantly emphasize, it is the looming threat of a destructive and irrational real – the war and death as such – on the imaginary daily pleasures of life as such (Cine-note 1, cine-note 2). Furthermore, as the narrative progresses, the threat becomes more palpable, so palpable that it ultimately dismantles the imaginary enjoyments of pre-war daily life.
The cinematography of Hanagatami is pure extravagance. Obayashi, by inventively blending a wide range of different cinematographical techniques (e.g. zoom-ins, jump-cuts, a myriad of different shot-transitions, mirroring of shots, playing with colour, … and many more) has crafted something that can only be described as a work of stylistic poetry – a work of poetry full of associative imagery. While Obayashi’s stylistic poetry may feel a bit too bombastic and overwhelming in the beginning of the narrative, Obayashi ultimately crafted an extremely pleasing and pure impressionistic painting of shifting images, a rich palette of fleeting vignettes that focus on Toshihiko, his friends, and the lives they are living in Karatsu with concise precision (Cine-note 3). With Hanagatami Obayashi has reached a personal pinnacle of composing powerful poetic imagery and evocative compositions – images and compositions that will long linger in one’s mind.
The imagery is supported by an equally eccentric and eclectic blend of classical music, traditional Japanese music, and the traditional drums-sounds so typical of Noh-theater (cine-note 4). This intricate blend, an integral part of the cinematographical composition, empowers the flow and the transiency of the stylistic imagery appropriately. It successfully induces a wide range of different moods, while continually infusing the narrative with a foreboding of death and destruction.
The typical sounds of Noh, so integral to the narrative, often coincide with the coming-to-halt or the start of movement in shots or mark the transition between shots as such. In general, these sounds have no other purpose then underline the presentational nature of the narrative, which is also evident from structuring the narrative into chapters.
The theater-like feel that typifies the narrative is further evoked by the unrealistic stage-like backdrops, the unrealistic and theatrical lightning, and by the theatricality that is present in the acting as such, e.g. the way characters utter their sentences and how the staged conversations ever retain a stage-like quality. This theatricality is most evident in the performances of Shunsuke Kubozuka, who plays Toshihiko Sakakiyama, and Honoka Yahagi, who plays Mina Ema. And while this kind of performance creates some distance between the spectator and the characters, it ultimately makes Obayashi’s associative poetry much more moving.
With Hanagatami, Obayashi created a narrative that feels like a fleeting string of impressions; the spectator adrift on the associative flow of music, speech and images, only to be brutally confronted with the impact of the looming war and the reality of death. As life is evoked as fleeting, moments of happiness quickly passing by, why invest in war, as peace is so much more beautiful and rewarding. This, and nothing else, is the powerful moving message of Hanagatami.
General-Note 1: One should not look far for a parallel between Obayashi’s life at the moment of crafting this narrative and the position of the youth depicted in the narrative. Both were at the eve of an event that implied death. Obayashi was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer and was told that he didn’t have long to live, while the youth in the narrative are at the eve of the pacific war. In this way, the cinematographical extravagance of Hanagatami can be read as a bombastic expression of life, of eros.
Narra-Note 1: The act of hanging the puppy-dog also acts as a reminder that animals have to be killed for us to be able to enjoy food. In other words, this act points, as a sort of interpretation, to the hidden cycle of life and death that supports our imaginary pleasure in life.
Cine-Note 1: One of the most poignant shots concerns the transition of the falling pedal of a rose into a drop of blood. This shot recurs throughout the narrative.
Cine-note 2: Among the associative imagery, the shots of the soldiers marching to the war are most explicit in their association between death and war. The paleness of the soldiers turns the soldiers into marching bodies, a heroic march for glory revised into a sad march to a certain death.
Cine-note 3: The narrative is full of flashbacks. In most cases, flashbacks are framed in the same associative way our memory functions. In this way, the visual flashbacks retain their fleeting character and often evoke a sort of nostalgia, while empowering the poetic associations that runs through the narrative. Also note the importance Kobayashi gives to the signifier in orienting the associative imagery.
Cine-note 4: The use of the drum-sounds reveals the influence Jo-Ha-Kyu, the artistic concept of modulation and movement utilized in all major forms of traditional Japanese drama, has had on Obayashi’s framing of the narrative.