House on Fire (火宅の人, Kinji Fukasaku, 1986)

In the closing scene of Kinji Fukasaku’s 1986 literary drama House on Fire (火宅の人, Kataku no hito), the hero plays a game he’s designed with his children titled “too heavy to bear” in which they each climb on his back waiting to see which if any of them can prove too much for the paternal shoulders. In recent years Fukasaku has become most closely associated with his late career international hit Battle Royale but prior to that his name had been almost synonymous with the genre he helped to consolidate, the jitsuroku gangster picture. Like the later A Chaos of Flowers, however, House on Fire is a subdued literary drama though one set largely in a more recent past revolving around conflicted author’s paternal anxiety and inspired by the autobiographical fiction of Kazuo Dan who might be best known outside of Japan for having penned the novel which inspired Nobuhiko Obayashi’s Hanagatami

Like many similar literary endeavours of the time, House on Fire revolves around a conflicted writer’s affair with a much younger woman. Though set mainly in the 1950s, the film opens with a prologue set 40 years earlier in which the young Kazuo witnesses the breakdown of his parents’ marriage as his father abruptly leaves the family while his mother (played by Dan’s real life daughter Fumi Dan) later leaves him too after falling in love with a young student. As an older man (Ken Ogata) he feels he understands, though as a young boy all he felt was resentment. It’s this central conflict that consumes him as he contemplates embarking on an affair, knowing that he’s betraying his own wife and children in the same way that his father had him and his mother. He explains that this is partly because of a distance that has arisen in his relationship with his second wife Yoriko (Ayumi Ishida) following a family tragedy in which his second son Jiro was left with brain damage after contracting meningitis, Yoriko retreating grief-stricken into obsessive religious practice praying for a miracle he does not believe will come. 

Typical of the “I Novel” Kazuo funnels all of this inner conflict into a serialised novel including all the salacious details of his subsequent affairs. The first of these is with a young actress, Keiko (Mieko Harada), who came to him with a letter of recommendation hoping to get his support and advice on embarking on a career in Tokyo. It seems clear that what Kazuo is attracted to is youth while what he fears is an ending, an anxiety which overshadows his romance while he continues to neglect his responsibilities as a husband and father leaving Yoriko to cope alone looking after the other children while caring for their disabled son. Learning of the affair she temporally leaves the family in much the same way his mother had, yet rather than accept his responsibility for the children Kazuo promptly abandons them too retreating to a hotel to write while leaving Jiro’s nurse and the housekeeper in sole charge of the family home. 

It may be true in a sense that if he lived as a regular family man he’d have nothing to write about, but as much as Kazuo agonises over the possibilities of making Keiko mother to his children he knows he cannot marry these two desires as simply as swapping one woman for another. Just as he had, his eldest son Ichiro born to his first wife comes to resent him, breaking in to the flat he shares with Keiko and smashing the place up to make plain his sense of hurt and betrayal. Yet Kazuo seemingly cannot reconcile his passionate desires with his familial responsibilities while consumed by guilt in his failure to live up to an inner ideal. The only conclusion he comes to is that he is illequipt to understand the complicated relationships between men and women, looking back on his parents’ romance and reflecting that they run from love so great it makes you want to die to hate so strong it makes you want to kill. 

Meanwhile, he circles around three women from the capable if strangely mysterious Yoriko who insists that she knows everything he does, to the petulant Keiko and carefree Yoko (Keiko Matsuzaka), a melancholy bar hostess who accompanies him on a trip around Japan while trying to decide whether to accept an offer of marriage from a wealthy old man. In contrast with the maternal Yoriko, both Keiko and Yoko present a less complicated vision of typical femininity each lively and childlike but both ultimately wanting something Kazuo can’t give them because to him the relationships are transitory. Yoko understands this the best even if Kazuo’s assertion that he enjoys being with her because she never asks him difficult questions speaks volumes about his own insecurity, enjoying the journey while coming to her own realisations in ultimately opting for a kind of stability in a loveless marriage. An essentially passive figure, Kazuo is abandoned by all three women as they exercise a romantic freedom he didn’t really consider they had with Yoriko finally deciding to return but defiantly redefining the terms of their relationship as she does so. 

With this the family is in a sense repaired, Yoriko reminding him that she knows everything he does while he is forced to acknowledge that he is lucky his family will have him back even as he plays the “too heavy to bear” game with his children as pregnant as it is with his internal failures as a husband and father. A minor meditation on the changing social mores of the post-war society and the inner turmoil of a man caught between them, Fukasaku’s distanced approach undercuts the sense of melancholy in the otherwise conservative conclusion as Kazuo both resists his self-characterisation as a feckless and weak willed man and embraces it in his imperfect determination to reintegrate himself into a quietly smouldering home. 


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Hanagatami (花筐/HANAGATAMI, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 2017)

Hanagatami posterIn time the past becomes a dream. A world in and of itself, conjured from feeling and memory and painted in the imprecise strokes of one attempting to recreate a long forgotten scene. The melancholy heroes of Nobuhiko Obayashi’s long career were each trapped in a sense by nostalgia, a yearning for another time and place, or more precisely another, more innocent, version of themselves only with the benefit of hindsight and the confidence of age. Finally realising a long dreamt of project in dramatising Kazuo Dan’s classic wartime youth novel Hanagatami (花筐/HANAGATAMI), Obayashi reunites with another melancholy young man who as he puts it in the opening text wants to tell his story not out of a sense of nostalgia but out of longing for the things which were lost. Those like him who had the misfortune to be young before the war saw their whole world swept away by a kind of madness far beyond their control, losing not only a past but a future too.

When Toshihiko Sakakiyama (Shunsuke Kubozuka) returns home from Amsterdam where he had been living with his parents, Japan is already at war in China. Though the times are changing, Toshihiko’s life remains relatively untouched by conflict, insulated from the concerns of the day by the pleasant natural surroundings of his old-fashioned country town. Returning to the family estate presided over by his war-widow aunt, Keiko (Takako Tokiwa), Toshihiko strikes up a friendship with her sickly sister-in-law, Mina (Honoka Yahagi), whose proximity to death only seems to enhance her beauty. At school he finds himself caught between two polar opposites – the strong and silent Ukai (Shinnosuke Mitsushima) and the cynical nihilist Kira (Keishi Nagatsuka), while his two sets of social circles finally combine with the addition of Mina’s friends Akine (Hirona Yamazaki) and Chitose (Mugi Kadowaki) who also happens to be Kira’s cousin. The world is on the brink of ruin, but there are dances and picnics and festivals and everywhere everyone is desperate to live even in the midst of such foreboding.

Obayashi opens with a quote from one of Dan’s poems in which he mourns the flowers in full bloom shortly to be cut down in their prime. Hanagatami itself means “flower basket” but is also the title of a noh play about a woman driven mad by love for a man from whom she is separated by the arbitrary rules of her society. Japan itself has become a basket of flowers, offering up its youth on a senseless altar to political hubris while a generation attends its own funeral and becomes obsessed with the idea of permanence in a permanently uncertain world. Chitose carries about her camera, bitterly claiming that she will confer immortality on her subjects while privately longing for an end to her loneliness and suffering.

Like the heroine of the noh play, our protagonists too are driven mad by love as the madness of their times spurs them on and holds them back in equal measure. Mina, in all her etherial beauty, becomes the symbol of an age – innocence about die, drowned in its own blood. All in love with Mina, or perhaps with death itself, the men sink further into petty rivalries and conflicted friendships all the while staving off the inevitabilities of their times – that soon they too will be expected to sacrifice themselves for a cause they don’t believe in or risk being left behind alone.

Toshihiko finds himself torn between his two friends – the light and the dark, the robust Ukai and the gloomy Kira. While Toshihiko’s wide-eyed hero worship of Ukai and his idealised male physique takes on an inescapable homoerotic quality, his relationship with Kira leads him towards a darker path on which everything is “worthless” and all pleasures impossible in a world apparently so close to its end. Kira, having committed a truly heinous act, reminds his friends that they routinely kill and eat animals, and that one day they too will be gobbled up, swallowed whole by the cruelty of their times.

One by one the war takes them, if indirectly, leaving only Toshihiko behind. Describing his youth as like a game of hide and seek in which he suddenly realised it had gotten dark and all his friends had gone home, Toshihiko recasts his tale as a ghost story in which he remains haunted by the visions of his younger self and longs for his long absent friends, robbed of the futures promised to them by right of birth. Free floating through dreams and memory, Obayashi conjures an etherial world overshadowed by tragedy but coloured with wistful melancholy as pale-faced soldiers march off for the land of the dead while youth does its best to live all its tomorrows today in rejecting the senseless cruelty of its age.


Screened at Nippon Connection 2018.

Update July 2020: Hanagatami is released on UK blu-ray from Third Window Films on 6th July in a set which also includes a 20-minute making of and 35-minute interview with director Nobuhiko Obayashi.

Original trailer (no subtitles)