In 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)