Seven Weeks (野のなななのか, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 2014)

“A death is a history” runs an opening title card in Nobuhiko Obayashi’s poignant existential drama, Seven Weeks (野のなななのか, No no Nanananoka). Returning to some of the director’s key themes, Obayashi’s adaptation of the novel by Koji Hasegawa takes its name from the traditional Buddhist period of mourning reminding us that life and death is a continuous cycle in which all lives are necessarily tied to one another. Some may later ask if those connections are also constraints, thinking perhaps of the sometimes onerous burdens of family, but even they later reflect on the necessity of human ties while contemplating the confluence of the eternal and the transient. 

The death we’re being asked to witness is that of 92-year-old Mitsuo Suzuki (Toru Shinagawa), a former doctor and owner of what some view as a junk shop, who is discovered collapsed by his granddaughter Kanna (Saki Terashima) only to die a few days later at the time shown on his permanently broken wristwatch which also happens to be the time the Great East Japan Earthquake struck in 2011. Soon his extended family begin to arrive beginning with long widowed sister Eiko (Tokie Hidari), grandson Fuyuki (Takehiro Murata) and his daughter Kasane (Hirona Yamazaki), and Kanna’s brother Akito (Shunsuke Kubozuka) while Fuyuki’s brother Haruhiko (Yutaka Matsushige) and his wife Setsuko (Tomoka Shibayama) will make it only in time for the wake. Throwing all into confusion is the unexpected arrival of a mysterious young woman, Nobuko (Takako Tokiwa), later revealed to be a nurse who once lived with the family and fulfilled the role of mother for Kanna and Akito whose parents were killed in a car accident while they were still young. 

Nobuko is in many ways the key to a mystery yet also a cypher, more than one woman at the same time as if in a sense resurrected from Mitsuo’s traumatic memories of love and war in the time of his youth. At his wake, men of a similar age spin their own war stories, Eiko reminding the young that their youth was war and perhaps they’ve a right to romanticise it for all of its terrible cruelty. Mitsuo didn’t go to the front but found himself a victim of shifting borders, ironically a descendent of settler colonisers as a native of Hokkaido travelling to the disputed island of Sakhalin in search of a friend and in the company of the young woman who was engaged to him but with whom he was himself in love believing the war was over only to discover no one had told the Russians and that wars do not end at the same time for everyone, or for some at all. 

In an ironic touch, great-granddaughter Kasane participates in an excavation of an old mine once staffed largely by forced Korean labour, an elderly woman plaintively singing Arirang over the dig site, only to later visit a similar location which has become the “Canada World” tourist attraction including a replica of the house from Anne of Green Gables. As she, Eiko, and Kanna reflect on the changes in the town there’s a minor sadness that the mine has closed which seems somewhat incongruous, even as the wholesomeness of coal from the ground is favourably compared with the dangerously intangible qualities of nuclear energy. Nevertheless, conflicted nuclear engineer Haruhiko later stakes his future on renewable energy, neatly echoing the sense of circularity in a continuous cycle of death and rebirth in which one life is necessarily tied to another and therefore to all lives. 

“We got along with the Russians in Sakhalin before the war” Mitsuo’s friend Ono (Takao Ito) laments, musing on the senselessness of conflict in its propensity to draw lines between people which divide rather than connect. Mitsuo’s death is indeed “a history tying the past and future”, a minor allegory for that of his nation as he contemplates lost love and the end to wandering that is death which leads in turn to new beginnings. “You want to look away. You want to forget about it”, Mitsuo confesses, “but you can’t. You have to remember so that it’s never repeated”. Through their 49-day odyssey, the family members begin to edge their way towards a less anxious if still uncertain future. “We might lose people but not hope” Kanna expounds, recommitting herself to the hometown spirit while opening up to the possibility of romance, while her brother does something much the same, as does her uncle Fuyuki even as his daughter conversely gives up on a possibly inappropriate crush to shift into a more mature adulthood. “We will go on peacefully” runs the final title card, a mission statement for the foundation of a better world. 


Seven Weeks streams in the US July 9 – Aug. 6 as part of Japan Society New York’s Tragedies of Youth: Nobuhiko Obayashi’s War Trilogy season in collaboration with KimStim.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Labyrinth of Cinema (海辺の映画館-キネマの玉手箱, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 2019)

“A movie can change the future, if not the past” according to the newly reawakened youngsters at the centre of Nobuhiko Obayashi’s final feature, Labyrinth of Cinema (海辺の映画館-キネマの玉手箱, Umibe no Eigakan – Kinema no Tamatebako). Continuing the themes present in Hanagatami, Labyrinth of Cinema takes us on a dark and twisting journey through the history of warfare in Japan as mediated by the movies with the poet Chuya Nakahara as our absent prophet reminding us that “dark clouds gather behind humanity” but that we need not feel as powerless as Nakahara once did for there are things to which our hands can turn. 

As the intergalactic narrator, Fanta G (Yukihiro Takahashi), explains the “present” of this film is our own but we find ourselves once again in Obayashi’s hometown of Onomichi where the local cinema is about to play its final show, a programme dedicated to the war films of Japan. Torrential rain has ensured a good audience, including three variously interested young men – cinephile Mario Baba (Takuro Atsuki), monk’s son Shigure (Yoshihiko Hosoda) who fancies himself a Showa-era yakuza, and “film history maniac” Hosuke (Takahito Hosoyamada). Noriko (Rei Yoshida), a teenage girl in sailor suit who only appears in blue-tinted monochrome, opens the show with a ‘40s folksong but soon disappears into the screen, followed by the three men who become the guardians and protectors of her image as they attempt to safeguard her existence through various scenes of historical carnage.

Noriko, the embodiment of a more innocent Japan, insists that “all you need is movies” and that she wants them to teach her of the things she does not know, most pressingly the nature of war. She enters the movies to find out who she is as we too peek into the soul of the nation, spinning back to the years of peace under the Tokugawa shogunate later juxtaposed with those of wartime nationalism in which “overseas” had become synonymous with adventure and opportunity, if perhaps darkly so in enabling the advance of Japanese imperialism. 

The three heroes find themselves literally immersed in cinema, pulled in by the great empathy machine to experience for themselves that which they could only previously imagine. Yet like the narrator of Nakahara’s poem they find themselves powerless, defined by their status as “members of the audience” even as their identities begin to blur with those of the various protagonists with whom they are being asked to identify. They attempt to protect the image of Noriko wherever they find her, even as a young Chinese woman orphaned by Japanese atrocity, but largely fail, unable to alter the course of history as mere spectators bound by the narrative rules of cinema. 

Yet sitting in front of the cinema screen convinces them that “movies demand I do something with my life”. Fanta G explains away the Meiji-era mentality with the claim that “people in power always punish freedom with death”, concluding that one man cannot change the system in the various assassinations of the revolutionaries trying to determine the future course of a nation, but insists on the right of all to be free to live their present and their future. The men learn that though they are powerless in the face of history, they have the power to craft their own happy ending but only if they abandon their identities as “members of the audience” in the knowledge that “if we just watch nothing will change”. 

With a deliberately theatrical artifice, trademark colour play, and surrealist imagery Obayashi wanders through 100 years of Japanese cinema with jidaigeki silents giving way to Masahiro Makino musicals and they in turn to the Hollywood-influenced song and dance of the immediate post-war era which was itself in the eyes of Fanta G an attempt to avert ones eyes from the horrors of the recent past but also a “lie” which carried its own kind of truth. The image of “Noriko” remains burned into the cinema screen, the movies the sole repository of the soul of Japan, though perhaps a Japan which no longer knows itself. “As long as I remember you, you’ll live” another bystander claims, “that’s why I have to be here”, waiting in a movie theatre existing outside of time and home to the labyrinths of cinema in which are to be found the vaults of human empathy. “To young people who want a future where no one knows wars, we dedicate this movie with blessing and envy”, run the closing lines, “in order to achieve world peace there are many things our hands can turn to” if only we rediscover the will to turn them. 


Labyrinth of Cinema is available to stream in the US until July 30 as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

Original trailer (English subtitles)