With such a rich and varied oeuvre, it would be a sin to reduce Nobuhiko Obayashi to being merely the director of House (1977), Hanagatami (2017)or Labyrinth of Cinema (2019). Yet, it has not always been easy to get a hold of his films. Third Windows Films, finally rights this wrong by releasing the Nobuhiko Obayashi’s 80’s Kadokawa Years boxed set in October. The set contains School In The Crosshairs (1981), The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (1983), The Island Closest to Heaven (1984), and His Motorbike, Her Island (1986). This time, we shine our psychoanalytic light on Obayashi’s adaptation of Katsura Morimura’s novel of the same name.
When Mari Katsuragi (Tomoyo Harada) was a child, her dreamy father told her all about a small sun-drenched island made of pure white coral that is closest to where god is in heaven. Anyone who wants to meet god can visit the island, yet only by asking God to take them there. They promise to go together.
Many years later, after her father has passed away, the introverted Mari decides to travel to New Caledonia. On the plane, she encounters the bubbly nineteen-year-old Fukuko Yamamoto (Fukuko Yamamoto). One day, while Yamamoto is enjoyed herself at the swimming pool, Mari sets out in search for that what her father talked about. After a little accident with her bicycle, she meets a Japanese boy (Ryôichi Takayanagi). They sadly part without exchanging their names. Not much later, she runs away from her traveling group with Yuichi Fukaya (Tôru Minegishi), a dandy guide who wants to help her find the place closest to heaven.
The Island Closest To Heaven is, in short, a straight-forward tale of a young girl who visits New Caledonia in search for the island her father so dreamily talked about only to find love in the process. While this narrative structure motivates Mari’s explorations on New Caledonia – and allows Obayashi to show the cultural and natural beauty of these tropical islands to the spectator, the visuals and the plot ultimately fails to elevate the film above its true purpose: to showcase Tomoya Harada in all her kawainess.
Despite this film being a mere vehicle to drive the sales of the novel upon which it is based and of the music of the life-sized idol Tomoyo Harada, an exploration of the main narrative dynamic and the themes can still be made. The initial question that needs to be posed is why Mari suddenly wants to travel to New Caledonia. Is it merely to fulfill her promise with her father that she wants to find this place or is something else in play, a phantasmatic reason that blossomed once her father’s died? In any case, it is pretty evident that her father’s dead is the cause of her down-casted presence as well as of the sudden bursting forth of her desire to find the island closest to heaven and escape the hold the subtle depression has over her.
Yet, as the start wandering the islands of New Caledonia, a different riddle is introduced: is it even possible to find the place her father so dreamingly talked about? Is this place, in other words, something material that can be found or is it something that can only be found metaphorically, by understanding that the dreamed-off place is a metaphor for a certain imaginary emotional state? Maybe, Mari does not yet fully understand what she is truly searching, what the nature is of the encounter that will allow her to break free from her lingering depression (Narra-note 1). In the same sense, Mari does not fully understands what compels her to search for the Japanese boy. It is only at the second meeting that the musical accompaniment implies that a sliver of romantic attraction is in play (Narra-note 2 (spoiler)).
Why does Yuichi Fukaya take her to the cliff at sunset? Did he merely fall for her youthful charm or has his desire blossomed due to the fact that she resembles the woman encountered met twenty years ago? Is his romantic interest driven by anything other than the attempt to love the woman of his failed romantic past through the charming appearance of Mari?
The composition of The Island Closest To Heaven is one of the tamest within Obayashi’s oeuvre. Obayashi does deliver a pleasing peaceful rhythm with his dynamic hand, a visual dynamism also effectively employed to evoke the natural – fauna and flora – and cultural beauty of New Caledonia, elegantly interweaving the promotion of this tropical island as an excellent travel destination to the audience. The measured and elegant nature of Obayashi’s dynamism is emphasized, in many sequences, by the peaceful musical accompaniment. Yet, one could even argue that it is the tranquil music that allows the unrushed dynamism to attain its pleasing elegance.
Despite being entirely devoid of his expressive decorations and stylish eccentrics, Obayashi still succeeds in integrating little decorative moments (e.g. shot-transitions, jump-cut-like moments) to highlight that it is, after all, his work. In the beginning of the narrative, moreover, he uses a colour-overlay to emphasize that what is visualized is a flashback to Mari’s childhood.
The composition is also focused on offering the spectator a voyeuristic glance at Tomoyo Harada – some visual moments are even reminiscent of contemporary idol image-video’s. This emphasis on ‘celebrating’ the girl-next-door presence of Tomoyo Harada of course means that her acting is put into the spotlight. Just like in The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (1983), it is not so much her acting-skills that keep the spectator engaged, but the lack of finesse that gives her presence its charming dimension and the elegance of her innocent demeanour.
The Island Closest To Heaven might be the purest idol-film Obayashi made and the clearest example of how Kadokawa wanted to exploit the audio-visual medium. This simple romance narrative is but a mere vehicle to promote Tomoyo Harada and the novel upon which it is based. As Obayashi does not find any opportunity to express himself visually, he is not able to elevate this promotional film to an experience that can still be deeply enjoyed by contemporary audiences.
Narra-note 1: While The Island Closest To Heaven aims to introduce the island as a metaphor for love, such reading is not truly correct. The whole narrative is, if one reads its structure correctly, a search for desire. The finale underlines that what is most important is the distance from the desired object. Why? Because the revitalizing effects of desire function best when the object is radically unattainable.
Narra-note 2: What truly causes Mari to fall in love with the Japanese boy is the fact that he, by repeating the signifiers from his mother to her, ends up resembling the romanticized image of Mari’s father. Ultimately, her love for this boy is partially caused by the fact that he, via the signifier, can bind Mari’s love for her father to him.