The Deserted City (廃市, Haishi, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1984)

haishiNobuhiko Obayashi might be most closely associated with his debut, Hausu, which takes the form of a surreal, totally psychedelic haunted house movie, but in many ways his first feature is not particularly indicative of the rest of Obayashi’s output. 1984’s The Deserted City (AKA Haishi, 廃市), is a much better reflection of the director’s most prominent preoccupations as it once again sees the protagonist taking a journey of memory back to a distant youth which is both forgotten in name yet ever present like an anonymous ghost haunting the narrator with long held regrets and recriminations.

Based on a novel by Takehiko Fukunaga, The Deserted City is a European influenced, nostalgic, coming of age tale in which university student Eguchi travels to a small Japanese backwater famous for its canals. Though not as sophisticated as Venice itself, the town shares something of the atmosphere of that city as it has often been evoked in literature in its slightly claustrophobic, decaying grandeur. Eguchi has come to the town on an invitation from his uncle and with the intention of spending the summer there to finish his undergraduate dissertation which concerns the work of Edgar Allen Poe.

However, Tokyoite Eguchi immediately finds the town strange, if mostly charming, with its old fashioned rhythms and almost silent soundscape in which only the lapping of the village’s many rivers is audible. Staying in a guest house run by 19 year old Yasuko and her grandmother, Eguchi begins to hear gentle sobbing at night and jumps to the conclusion it must belong to Yasuko’s married older sister, Ikuyo, whom he has yet to meet. Younger brother Saburo also lurks silently in the background with the brother-in-law, Naoyuki, making infrequent appearances. Eguchi had apparently almost forgotten about this single summer in his youth, but was reminded of it after reading a newspaper report that the town had been destroyed in a fire. His memories are coloured by the tragedy which occurred towards the end of his stay and which his youthful soul was not fully able to understand.

The Deserted City revisits many of the themes which came to define Obayashi’s career from the nostalgia for youth and the power of memory to a vaguely supernatural tone which prefigures the final traumatic event that will continue to haunt the protagonist, even if unconsciously, for the rest of his life. Fukunaga was himself very much influenced by European literature and The Deserted City has a distinctly Western feeling with its death ridden canal town and once grand family in decline. Eguchi’s thesis is on the work of Edgar Allen Poe and it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that he is reading his studies into the story of his own life with the mysterious crying and hidden sister not to mention family secrets and the frequent allusions to the sorry state of the moribund city.

Eguchi describes Yasuko as “cheerful” yet she herself offers the most melancholic commentary of her life. She says she hates the town and can’t stand the constant sound of the waters which she likens the death wail of her city – a slothful sound without energy or purpose. She can see all the other young people leaving with only the elderly remaining behind to decay along with the town, but when Eguchi asks why she doesn’t leave too she replies that she can’t, she’s bound to this place in life and death. Similarly when making a visit to her mother’s grave at a nearby temple she remarks that in this place of stillness, she can no longer discern a difference between the living and the dead. Finally, after all the tragedies that have befallen her, Yasuko declares herself to be “nothing at all” and in bidding Eguchi goodbye as he leaves, corrects him when he promises to visit – she knows she’ll never see him again, he will return to the world of the living. He’ll forget all of this, as if it happened in a dream.

Like many of these stories, The Deserted City is filled with the detached melancholy of the older man looking back at the young one. Eguchi says this incident taught him to expect tragedy from the very beginning of things though he also claimed to have forgotten all about the town and its sad stories of longing and misunderstandings, romantic and otherwise. Working with ATG here Obayashi opts for a nostalgic 4:3 frame and a moderately warm colour palate which echoes both the slightly idealised atmosphere of the idyllic waterside village and its nature as a place which exists solely in memory, shaded in tones of nostalgia but also of regret. Much more conventional than some of Obayashi’s other work, The Deserted City is a perfect blend of European romanticism, melodrama and slight gothic undertones which, though a little low on impact, is a perfect synthesis of his themes up to this point.


Unsubbed trailer:

A Stranger of Mine (運命じゃない人, Kenji Uchida, 2005)

stranger of mineSometimes life throws you a pretty crazy night but unbeknownst to you the whole world has gone crazy too. For the disparate group of people at the centre of Kenji Uchida’s A Stranger of Mine (運命じゃない人, Unmei Janai Hito) , this proves to be more than usually true. A cute romantic encounter may end up going in a less than cinematic direction while ex-girlfriends, detectives and even the yakuza all conspire to frustrate the lovelorn dreams of a nice guy businessman who never even realises the total chaos which is ensuing all around him.

The film begins with a sad scene of a woman, Maki, carrying large bags and forlornly dropping a key through a letter box. She pawns what looks like an engagement ring and thinks about what to do next. Whilst sitting alone in a restaurant, a man asks her to join him and she is overjoyed to find some company. The man is Kanda, a small time detective and childhood friend of businessman Miyata who is also broken hearted as his girlfriend has left him. The girlfriend, “Ayumi”, is not all she seems and is already mixed up with yakuza boss Asai. Mix in a MacGuffin of some missing money and one ordinary night among millions just got very complicated indeed!

Uchida starts out with a fairly standard indie rom-com approach as the two brokenhearted jilted lovers Maki and Miyata are brought together by Kanda’s machinations but just as we think we’re about to head into some kind of Before Sunset scenario our perspective shifts and we find out just why it is that Kanda seems to be acting so manically. In fact, he’s been looking out for his friend all along but it’s getting kind of complicated at his end and the one thing he 100% does not want is for the rather innocent Miyata to figure out that he’s at the centre of dangerous mob caper because his ex-girlfriend, whom he still think is an angel, is really not the innocent flower he thought she was.

Just another night in the city, the point of view shifts around these five characters whose lives intersect like cogs turning some giant, unseen machine. We’re shown one set of events only to have our understanding of them undercut by seeing them again from another angle. Everything is a coincidence, or maybe nothing is, but each of these five characters wade into each other’s story leaving a drama filled wake with only poor Miyata seemingly oblivious to what’s really going on.

A Stranger of Mine plays like an extremely complex farce in which fate conspires to have some fun with five ordinary people and Uchida mines the situation for all the (sometimes dark) humour it can offer. Loosely split into three sections divided by title cards bearing the names of the characters, the film takes inspiration from classic Hollywood screwball comedies and film noir whilst adding a more modern, non-linear approach as Uchida plays and replays his scenes to make us see that things are not always the way they look at first glance.

While obviously a low budget, independent effort, A Stranger of Mine offers surprisingly high production values and boasts excellent performances from its tightly composed cast. The script is fiendishly complicated and exacting yet Uchida pulls it off with a keenly observed eye. Though improbable, the events are never implausible and play out with a kind of off beat inevitability that further underlines the film’s mildly ironic, comic tone. Gleefully playful, A Stranger of Mine may appear a little slight on the surface, but just as its multi-layered narrative suggests, the perspective only deepens on a closer look.


Unsubtitled trailer: