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)

Casting Blossoms to the Sky (この空の花 長岡花火物語, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 2012)

“There’s still time until a war” runs the title of a play for voices at the centre of Nobuhiko Obayashi’s oscillating docudrama, Casting Blossoms to the Sky (この空の花 長岡花火物語, Kono Sora no Hana: Nagaoka Hanabi Monogatari). Asking why when presented with the opportunity to create something beautiful that gives joy and hope to all who witness it mankind chooses death and destruction, Obayashi considers responses to disasters manmade and natural and finds largely kindness and resilience among those determined to avoid the mistakes of the past while building a better tomorrow. 

Set in the immediate wake of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami and inspired by verbatim interviews with local people, Obayashi’s elliptical drama sends an emotionally arrested newspaper reporter to Nagoka having received a letter from an old lover that calls her back into the past. Reiko (Yasuko Matsuyuki) broke up with Katayama (Masahiro Takashima) 18 years previously uttering only the cryptic phrase “we have nothing to do with war”, but travelling through her “wonderland” begins to realise that she and everyone else is in that sense wrong. No one is really entirely unconnected or untouched by the destructive effects of conflict and pretending that it’s nothing to do with you will not in the end protect against it. 

“To the children of the future, from the adults who lived the past” runs the opening title card, making plain a fervent hope to connect the often unknowing younger generations who assume war is nothing to do with them with the traumatic past through the voices of those who directly experienced it. The play to which Reiko is invited is in itself a play for voices, an avant-garde theatre piece inspired by the verbatim speeches of residents of Nagaoka recounting their often harrowing experiences of the war apparently penned by a strange high school girl (Minami Inomata) who rides everywhere on a unicycle. The performance is set to take place in conjunction with the local summer festivals which include a series of fireworks displays commemorating lives lost in the bombing raids and symbolising a spirit of recovery following a destructive local earthquake some years earlier. 

Obayashi draws direct comparison between the natural disasters of earthquake and tsunami, and the manmade disaster of war but discovers that ordinary people often react to them in the same way with a furusato spirit of mutual solidarity and kindness. One of Katayama’s students is a displaced young man from Fukushima who remarks on the kindness he experienced having been taken in by the town of Nagaoka, a kindness he hopes to repay someday when he is finally allowed to return to his own hometown just as the people of Nagaoka have done following kindness shown to them after the earthquake. The discrimination he faces as someone from a town affected by radiation calls back to that experienced by Reiko’s parents who were survivors of the atomic bomb that fell on Nagasaki, a location chosen by pure chance on a whim when poor weather made the primary target unavailable. Among all the horror of the wartime stories Reiko uncovers, there is also selfless heroism such as that of the young man bravely throwing water over those trapped in a burning air raid shelter. 

“If only people made pretty fireworks instead of bombs, there wouldn’t have been any wars” a poet laments drawing a direct line between these two very different uses of the same material, a connection further rammed home by twin visits to a fireworks factory and atomic bomb museum. The “phoenix fireworks” become a fervent prayer, blossoms cast to the sky, in hope of a better, kinder future without the folly of war. “There are adults who think war is necessary” Katayama explains, “but not the children, of course. That’s why it’s up to the children to make peace”. Some may complain that in the rapid economic development of the post-war society something has been lost, but in times of need people are still there for each other forging the furusato spirit in contemporary Japan. Opening with a series of silent-style title cards, Obayashi’s overtly theatrical aesthetics may be comparatively retrained even while incorporating frequent use of animation and surrealist backdrops, but lend an ever poignant quality to this humanist plea for a more compassionate world in which the only explosions in the sky are made of flowers and hope not hate or destruction. 


Casting Blossoms to the Sky 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)

Lovely Devils (可愛い悪魔, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1982)

Until fairly recently, the work of Nobuhiko Obayashi had been largely unappreciated in the Anglosphere where he is associated most closely with his debut film House which was itself somewhat grudgingly respected as a “crazy” midnight movie. He was however surprisingly prolific and especially so for a director working through the difficult 1980s in a 60-year career which ended only with his death after a protracted illness itself ironically announced on the day his final film, Labyrinth of Cinema, should have opened in Japanese cinemas had it not been postponed in light of the coronavirus pandemic. Produced for television in the same year as I am You You Are Me, Lovely Devils (可愛い悪魔, Kawaii Akuma) is among those which Obayashi did not script for himself but is penned by Machiko Nasu and apparently inspired by The Bad Seed though Obayashi later revised the script to remove traces of the original work unwilling to create a simple homage. 

Similar in tone to Obayashi’s later The Deserted City, Lovely Devils is at heart a twisted gothic romance cautioning against the dangers of an excessive thirst for love. In ‘70s Japan, a wedding takes place at small church during which 5-year-old Alice, niece to Koji (Hiroyuki Watanabe) the groom, becomes overly attached to the veil of the bride, Fuyuko (Nao Asuka), and in the manner of entitled small children everywhere demands to be given it. Fuyuko tries to explain that she plans to hang on to the veil for the rest of her life as a keepsake and is sure that Alice will have an even prettier one of her own someday, but Alice creepily asks if that means she can have it when Fuyuko dies and, wanting to bring an end to the matter, she unwisely agrees. While everyone is busy assembling for the wedding photos in the garden, Fuyuko violently tumbles out of an upstairs window, her broken body landing on the patio below only to be met by Alice excited about collecting her veil. 

Meanwhile, at the same time in Vienna, Fuyuko’s exchange student sister Ryoko (Kumiko Akiyoshi) is in the middle of a difficult breakup with her local boyfriend Johann in which she, perhaps understandably, tells him to go die only to see him get hit by a car on his way out of her apartment. Overcome with guilt and grief in believing that she somehow killed Johann by wishing for his death, Ryoko goes quietly mad until her landlady contacts Koji who comes to bring her home and places her into a mental institution run by a convent in which the resident psychologist, Dr. Tsukahara (Toru Minegishi), is also a priest. After three years, Ryoko seems to be sufficiently recovered and so Koji asks his sister Keiko (Miyoko Akaza) to take her in as a governess to the now eight-year-old Alice (Tina Jackson). 

The central irony is that Ryoko is almost certainly not guilty of psychically killing Johann just someone who bitterly regrets saying something unkind in anger and having fate ironically follow through, where as Alice is definitely “demonic” and, as is later pointed out, a child who cannot discern right from wrong. In the liner notes for a later release for the film, Obayashi likened the figure of Alice who commits a series of murders with no conceptual understanding that it’s morally wrong to kill to that of himself as a thoroughly militarist boy in wartime who thought that Japan was just and everything outside Japan “bad”. Alice sees something she wants and has to have it. If someone else has it and won’t give it to her, they have to go (sometimes in quite elaborate ways). Ryoko’s battle is against the commonly held belief that eight-year-old girls are innocent angels, no one in their right mind (Ryoko has just been released from a psychiatric institution following a breakdown after all) would believe Alice capable of violent murder and especially not on the grounds that she simply wanted something trivial like a veil or a doll and was unable to accept that she could not have it. 

Later, Alice’s fragile, chain-smoking, dipsomaniac mother Keiko who always suspected there was something not quite right with her little girl attributes this extreme possessiveness to having discovered the body of her father after he unexpectedly hanged himself in their family home (it does not seem to occur to Keiko that perhaps he is merely the first victim, his ornate quill pen one of Alice’s favourite trophies). She thinks that lack of paternal love has made her seek attachment and permanence in objects but also dangerously in her uncle Koji whom she sees both as a surrogate paternal figure and as an incestuous love interest. It is also somewhat unfortunate that the actress playing Alice and the character herself is half-Japanese playing into an uncomfortable stereotype in gothic horror that posits these demonic qualities and romantic perversions as essentially an extension of foreignness, but in any case Obayashi leans in deep with the wedding imagery as Koji returns to rescue Ryoko in the white suit from his wedding firstly on her release from the hospital on which she too wears a white lace dress, and then subsequently with the still eight-year-old Alice who is dressed much the same only with the addition of an Edwardian-style sun hat to complete the look.  

It’s this final juxtaposition which pushes Ryoko towards accepting her imprisonment as a “criminal of love”, seeing herself and Alice as two of the same as if she really had caused Johann’s death through an excessive desire for a love he had but refused to give her in the same way Alice kills “out of a longing and thirst for love” sublimated into the acquisition of objects. Conjuring an intense and heady atmosphere of gothic unease with the remote country mansion and wandering ghostly brides, Obayashi once again plays with psychedelic surrealism with his romantic painted backdrops and characteristic use of colourplay particularly in flashback as Keiko recalls a sepia-tinged memory of the time they were “almost too happy”. Boasting high production values despite its TV movie genesis, Lovely Devils is defiantly an Obayashi production filled with his wistful sense of loss and nostalgia but also a deep darkness in its mildly disturbing, unconventional conclusion. 


Seijo Story – 60 Years of Making Films (ノンフィクションW 大林宣彦&恭子の成城物語 [完全版] ~夫婦で歩んだ60年の映画作り~, Isshin Inudo & Eiki Takahashi, 2019)

Director Nobuhiko Obayashi sadly passed away earlier this year the day his final film, Labyrinth of Cinema, would have opened in Japanese cinemas had it not been unfortunately delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic. Produced for premium TV network Wowow and directed by Isshin Inudo and Eiki Takahashi, Seijo Story – 60 Years of Making Films (ノンフィクションW 大林宣彦&恭子の成城物語 [完全版] ~夫婦で歩んだ60年の映画作り~, Non-Fiction W: Obayashi Nobuhiko & Kyoko no Seijo Monogatari (Kanzenhan) -Fufu de Arunda 60 Nen no Eigazukuri-) is part “making of” documentary following Obayashi through the postproduction process on Labyrinth of Cinema, and part career retrospective, but most of all a loving tribute to an enduring creative partnership not to mention lifelong romance between Obayashi and his infinitively supportive wife Kyoko. 

The film takes its name from an area of Tokyo designated as a specialised school district during the Taisho era but also from the 1930s the location of Toho Studios, later home to such directors as Akira Kurosawa and Mikio Naruse, becoming a film industry hub. It was at Seijo University that Obayashi met Kyoko Hanyu who subsequently became his wife. Together they began making 8mm films, the first of which, The Girl in the Photograph, starred Kyoko and was shot in 1960, and have been making movies together ever since. 

Following the path of Obayashi’s career, Inudo and Takahashi nevertheless centre that of Kyoko, making plain that without Kyoko much of Obayashi’s work would not have been possible. Acting as a producer, Kyoko performed many other roles from stylist to caterer, bringing the money together and making the most of it to allow Obayashi to complete his artistic vision while also being a warm and comforting presence on set engendering loyalties in much of the director’s regular team that they confess might not have been present if he had simply been working with an external production company. It is, in many ways, a family business and by all accounts a very happy, very loving, professional as well as personal relationship. 

Indeed, one collaborator remarks that Obayashi was certainly very lucky to have a producer prepared to let him do more or less as he pleased though he recalls somewhat humorously that her first use of her “power” after being credited as “producer” on his sixth feature I Are You, You Am Me was to put her foot down in instructing him to stop making ironic appearances in his own films. Obayashi also recalls that she said she’d leave him if he disappointed her and the fact she’s still here supporting his work is precisely because it continued to evolve and still manages to surprise her after 60 years of careful collaboration. Diagnosed with terminal cancer and given at most a year to live prior to the completion of Hanagatami, Obayashi launched straight into production of Labyrinth of Cinema, lamenting only that he feels he had so much more still to do having explored only a fraction of the art to which he’d dedicated his life. 

He explains that he was given a kind of freedom that others did have and felt a responsibility to embrace it. From a family of doctors, it was assumed he too would enter the profession but his father told him to follow his dreams instead, “being able to do what you want is what it means to live in peace”. But he still feels a sense of distance from the mainstream film industry, describing himself as a non-professional film director regarded as an “amateur” in remaining outside the studio system even if he did nevertheless make a series of “commercial” films though very much on his own terms. Fellow film director Yoji Yamada, on friendly terms with Obayashi more as a result of living in the same area than professional connection, reveals that he was not originally very interested in his work. Yamada is certainly a very different director, a veteran of Shochiku now also in his 80s and sometimes (unfairly) dismissed by international critics for making films which are seen as essentially mainstream, the very epitome of Shochiku’s inoffensive middle-of-the-road studio brand. Yet he also praises this sense of freedom that Obayashi was able to embrace in contrast to studio directors like himself who trained on the job learning conventional film grammar that those of his generation were always trying to escape. Obayashi views himself as a “film artist” who found greater acceptance with the art and experimental scene than mainstream cinema, getting his on-set education as a director of TV commercials which were then, perhaps ironically, the most lucrative area of the industry which had begun to decline towards the end of the 1960s. 

Yet Yamada later came to admire Obayashi, his words of endorsement can even be seen at the end of the trailer for Labyrinth of Cinema, finding in them an expression of a personal philosophy that he sees as less to do with the war itself than Obayashi’s own internalised feelings towards it. Describing himself as a militarist boy, Obayashi felt betrayed by the hypocrisy of the wartime adults, fully believing he would die with the loss of the war but seeing soldiers celebrate its end with black market rice. “I love you surpasses social status, wealth, or differences in religion, ideology, and beliefs. The feeling of love is universal. I love you is the only universal language. A sign of peace” he explains to a group of children. “Young people shouldn’t fight battles but work together for peace. I love you.”. A fitting tribute to a life in cinema, Seijo Story is also a love story in more ways than one, the story of a marriage and of a love for all mankind as expressed as a desire for the kind of peace where everyone is free to follow their dreams.


Seijo Story – 60 Years of Making Films is available to stream in the US until July 30 as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

Japan Cuts trailer (dialogue free)

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)

Sada (SADA〜戯作・阿部定の生涯, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1998)

Sada poster“Facts can easily become fiction when recounted by someone, even by oneself. But with a bit of sincerity lies can become truth”, our genial guide explains, paradoxically telling us that the heroine, a woman he regards as a loveable kid sister, wants to tell us her story herself. Apologising in advance for her “rudeness”,  he reveals to us that the woman is none other than the “notorious” Sada Abe, a woman who, apparently now forgotten, was once a front page sensation for having killed her lover and cut off his penis to carry him with her always.

Despite the narrator’s claims that Sada’s fame has faded, her story has proved fertile cinematic ground, most famously inspiring Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses which sees her claustrophobic descent into sexual obsession as a reaction to the intense austerity of militarism. Obayashi, however, is keen to remember that that aside from the newspaper headlines, the salaciousness and peculiar romanticism of her story, Sada was a real woman who suffered in an intensely patriarchal society and was perhaps seeking something that the world was unable to give her.

As she reminds us, Sada too had a childhood. Obayashi opens the film with a young Sada innocently throwing hoops over a tall phallic object. Six years later, her life changes when a college boy drags her off the street into a nearby inn and rapes her, claiming that she is well known as a good time girl and that he is perfectly entitled to behave in the way he is behaving. Deed done, the college boy leaves but Sada (Hitomi Kuroki) is rescued by the gentlemanly figure of sickly medical student Okada (Kippei Shina) who has a patch over his eye and a romantic disposition. Okada gives her not only a lifelong and strangely erotic attachment to donuts, but a junai foundation in an eternally unrealisable longing for a pure and innocent love.

Okada, as Obayashi later tells us, is also a “real” person though he has no real evidence that he and Sada ever crossed paths. He gives her the knife she will later use to sever her lover’s penis and tells her to use it to cut out his heart, which belongs to her. Okada, claiming that he will forever watch over her, introduces a secondary theme in that he is a sufferer of Hansen’s disease, or leprosy, then thought incurable and “treated” only by exile. Sada loses her pure love and never knows why, but sadly chooses not take his advice to remember that she is an honest girl and refuse to be corrupted by her trauma. Now unable to marry and it remaining a virtual impossibility to enter any other kind of profession, Sada becomes a geisha, later giving that up for the more lucrative world of casual sex work.

Perhaps ironically, it’s through her life as a sex worker that Sada begins to find a degree of freedom amidst the impassioned atmosphere of increasing militarism. While the men are caught up in destructive games of martial glory, Sada is just trying to live her many lives and dreaming her dream of love. It’s that dream of love that brings her to Tatsuzo (Tsurutaro Kataoka), a married, poetic ladies’ man with whom she eventually retreats into an isolationist kingdom of two. Yet their intensely co-dependent relationship is never quite enough for her because it fails to marry her physical need with the emotional, and the figure of Okada, the innocent, romanticised white knight of her youth, lingers in her mind. Sada kills Tatsuzo not quite by accident, attempting to take ownership of something which can never be hers in her fiercely patriarchal world where her clients coldly chide her for not being “polite” enough and despite the earning potential of her profession, she remains dependent on men to escape it.

Sada’s “crime” might not quite be revenge for all she’s suffered but it is a pointed act of rebellion towards a conformist society. She laments that her notoriety soon faded, that if being forgotten is like dying then she died long ago, but for a short time all of Japan was captivated not by the outrageous horror of her transgression but by an idea of “romance” that stood behind it as if Sada had moved beyond double suicide into new territories of eternal love through seeking to possess her lover even in death. The narrator, Sada’s sometime pimp, tells us that few remember Sada now and suggests that Japan is once again in a dark age, stopping only to remark that people were beautiful then too despite or perhaps because of the darkness. Fittingly the figure of the “real” Sada retreats and we’re left again with her legend, an imagined future for a woman who faded into pre-war tragedy as a symbol of its dangerous intensity. Even so, Obayashi is intent to show us that there was indeed a woman named Sada Abe who found herself at the mercy of her times but tried to live all the same, dreaming of impossible love in a world of corruption.


Original trailer (English 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)

Death at an Old Mansion (本陣殺人事件, Yoichi Takabayashi, 1975)

death at an old mansion posterKousuke Kindaichi is one of the best known detectives of Japanese literature. There are 77 books in the Kindaichi series which has spawned numerous cinematic adaptations as well as a popular manga and anime spin-off starring the grandson of the original sleuth. Sadly only one of Seishi Yokomizo’s novels has been translated into English (The Inugami Clan which has the distinction of having been filmed not once but twice by Kon Ichikawa), but many Japanese mystery lovers have ranked his debut, The Murder in the Honjin, as one of the best locked room mysteries ever written. Starring Akira Nakao as the eccentric detective, Yoichi Takabayashi’s Death at an Old Mansion (本陣殺人事件, Honjin Satsujin Jiken) was the first of three films he’d make for The Art Theatre Guild of Japan and updates the 1937 setting of Yokomizu’s novel to the contemporary 1970s.

Beginning at the end, Kindaichi (Akira Nakao) arrives at a country mansion with a sense of foreboding which borne out when he realises that the young lady he’s come to see, Suzu (Junko Takazawa), has died and he’s arrived just in time to witness her funeral. It’s been a year since he first met her, though he did so under less than ideal circumstances. As it happened, Suzu’s older brother, Kenzo (Takahiro Tamura), was married to a young woman of his own choosing, Katsuko (Yuki Mizuhara), despite strong familial opposition. On the night of their wedding, the couple were brutally murdered inside a private annex to the main building. The doors were firmly locked from the inside and there was no murder weapon on site. The only clue was bloody three fingered handprint made by someone wearing the “tsume” or picks used for playing the koto. Kindaichi, already a well known private detective, was summoned to investigate because of a personal connection to Katsuko’s uncle, Ginzo (Kunio Kaga).

The original novel was published in 1946 and it has to be said, some of its themes make more sense in the pre-war 1937 setting than they do for the comparatively more liberal one of 1975 though such small minded attitudes are hardly uncommon even in the world today. The Ichiyanagi family live on a large family estate (apparently not the “Honjin” – a resting place for imperial retinues in the Edo era, of the title but the ancestral association remains) and enjoy a degree of social standing as well as the privilege of wealth in the small rural town. Katsuko, by contrast, is from a “lowly” family of well-to-do farmers – mere peasantry to the Ichiyanagis, many of whom believe Kenzo is making a huge and embarrassing mistake in his choice of wife. Kenzo, a middle-aged scholar, has shocked them all with his sudden determination to marry, not to mention his determination to break with family protocol and marry beneath him.

Japanese mysteries are much less concerned with motive than their Western counterparts, but class conflict is definitely offered as a possible reason for murder. Other clues have more menacing dimensions such as the repeated mentions of a scary looking three fingered man who apparently delivered a threatening letter to the mansion on the night of the murder, and Suzu’s constant questions about her recently deceased cat who liked to listen to her play the koto. Suzu is 17 but has some kind of learning difficulties and is arrested in a childlike state of innocence which leads her to utter simple yet profound words of wisdom whilst also believing that her recently deceased cat, Tama, is some kind of god. Suzu’s “innocence” is contrasted with her brother’s coldhearted rigidity in which he’s described as a sanctimonious snob who believes himself above regular folk and treats his servants with contempt. This same rigidity in fact aligns him with his sister as both share an “atypical” way of thought and behaviour. Kenzo’s unexpected romance turns out not to be middle-aged lust for domination but an innocent first love arriving at 40 with all the pain and complication of adolescence.

Kindaichi arrives to solve the crime and makes an instant partner of the police inspector in charge who’s glad to have such esteemed help on such a difficult case. Putting two and two together, Kindaichi soon comes up with a few ideas after rubbing up against a mystery novel obsessed suspect and numerous red herrings. Once again coincidence plays a huge role, but the business of the murder is certainly elaborate given the pettiness of the reasoning behind it. Takabayashi never plays down the typically generic elements of this classic mystery, but adds to them with eerie, occasionally psychedelic camera work, shifting to sepia for imagined reconstructions and making use of repeated motifs from the fire-like imagery of the water wheel to a shattered photo of Kenzo shot through the eye. Strangely framed in red and gold the murder takes on a theatrical association that’s perfectly in keeping with its well choreographed genesis, and all the more chilling because of it. A satisfying locked room mystery,  Death at an Old Mansion is also a tragedy of out dated ideals equated with a kind of innocence and purity, of those who couldn’t allow their dreams to be sullied or their name besmirched. Perhaps not so different from the world of 1937 after all.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Take Me Away! (ふりむけば愛, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1978)

Take Me Away PosterDuring his long and extremely varied career, Nobuhiko Obayashi was a not infrequent visitor to the world of the idol movie though his most notable entries into the genre would come in the 1980s Kadokawa heyday with the much loved The Little Girl who Conquered Time (starring Tomoyo Harada) and School in the Crosshairs (starring Hiroko Yakushimaru) among many others made for that studio alone. Obayashi’s ‘80s idol movies play very much into his key themes in their preoccupation with youthful melancholy and teenage ennui but 1978’s Take Me Away (ふりむけば愛, Furimukeba Ai) takes a slight step away from the genre norms in its slightly more grownup tale of complicated love and early life disappointments.

Beginning in typically strange Obayashi style, the film opens with some footage of abandoned machinery before the caption “Kyoko is on a journey” flashes up on the screen and we meet the woman herself (Momoe Yamaguchi) as she stares at San Fransisco’s Golden Gate Bridge.  Soon enough her view is obscured by a runaway kite bearing the name of Tetsu (Tomokazu Miura) – a young Japanese man currently living in the city. The pair hit it off while Tetsu tries to fix his both kite and Kyoko’s shoe which she broke trying to catch it. Tetsu promises to show her around San Fransisco and asks her to meet him at Union Square the next day at noon. Kyoko waits but Tetsu does not arrive – eventually a friend of his turns up in his place and Kyoko reluctantly spends a few hours with him during which she reveals that she’s on a suicide holiday and is about to go back to her hotel room to write the note. Finally Tetsu arrives, takes her to a hippy beatnik club where he sings her the title song of the movie, and the pair fall deeply in love.

Tetsu promises to meet Kyoko back in Tokyo to start a life together, but once again he does not turn up. Heartbroken and worried, Kyoko searches for him but the name of a bar he gave her as a point of rendezvous seems to be fake and her letters all come back undeliverable. When she gets hit by a car driven by a wealthy businessman, another, more stable, romantic possibility presents itself but will Kyoko let her true love dream go?

Take Me Away was the eighth in a series of films which starred popular Horipro idol Momoe Yamaguchi and her regular leading man Tomokazu Miura but the couple already had a long history of working with Obayashi in his career as a director of TV commercials. In fact the pairing which would eventually become a real life marriage was born thanks to Obayashi who was casting around for some stars while he made commercials with Miss Lonely apparently already on his mind. Obayashi was offered the chance to direct Yamaguchi’s cinematic debut but the dates didn’t line up and she made her first film, an adaptation of Yasunari Kawabata’s The Dancing Girl of Izu, with Katsumi Nishikawa instead.

This being the eighth Yamaguchi/Miura romantic drama the stakes needed to be raised – hence the decision to shoot for real on location in San Fransisco. Like many idol movies, the temporary shift away from the regular world the leading lady inhabits provides her an occasion to reinvent herself and the jet-setting, glamorous American holiday is certainly in keeping with the new, globally minded youth of Japan interested in transgressing borders of all kinds. When Tetsu meets Kyoko, she spins him a tale about diplomat parents that sounds like it could come out of any idol movie but in a departure from the norm it’s a part of her new holiday persona. In truth, beatnik dropout Tetsu is the posh one, a runaway son of a wealthy doctor, while Kyoko’s origins are humbler – she’s saved the money for this extremely extravagant holiday while working not as a concert pianist as she claimed, but as a piano tuner (making her choice of a Holiday Inn less strange in retrospect).

Though many idol movies centre around their teenage target audience, Kyoko and Tetsu are very noticeably grown up, already leading “adult” lives, no longer students but young people living semi-independently. This is brought home by the incongruous inclusion of a sex scene – the first in the series of films starring Yamaguchi and Miura, something which would not usually feature (at least explicitly) in the generally innocent idol movie world. Obayashi chooses to shoot this in an artistic, surreal, and impressionistic rather than naturalistic manner which shows the pair lying together naked (Yamaguchi covers herself with an arm) with a superimposition of the couple about to kiss over the top while the entire scene is bathed in golden white light. The sequence is one of the few typically Obayashi flourishes seen in the film (others include the title sequence, obvious Pan Am model shots, illustrated starry skies, and a slapstick brawl conducted to ‘20s jazz), but it perfectly captures the glory of young love so central to the early part of the film.

Of course, it doesn’t last. Holiday romances are one thing, but Tetsu proves to be a flaky sort of guy on every conceivable occasion until he’s finally dragged back into Kyoko’s orbit and vows to give up on his half-hearted ways once and for all to finally be true to his one true love. Kyoko’s second chance – a marriage proposal from the CEO who ran her over looks like the better option, that is until he shows his true colours at the film’s climax. Just as Tetsu leant meaning to Kyoko’s life in San Fransisco, so she too reawakens his fighting spirit. Tetsu describes himself as like the kite which bears his name – a free floating thing whose strings have long been severed. He needs the steady hand of Kyoko to right himself again. Unlike many of Obayashi’s wistful dramas, Take Me Away has a classically happy ending though its oddly silly, slapstick quality is very much in keeping with his sensibilities. A strange brew to be sure, but one which retains the essential innocence of the idol movie even whilst moving it beyond its traditionally adolescent remit.


Tomokazu Miura’s Furimukeba Ai

School in The Crosshairs (ねらわれた学園, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1981)

Still most closely associated with his debut feature Hausu – a psychedelic haunted house musical, Nobuhiko Obayashi’s affinity for youthful subjects made him a great fit for the burgeoning Kadokawa idol phenomenon. Maintaining his idiosyncratic style, Obayashi worked extensively in the idol arena eventually producing such well known films as The Little Girl Who Conquered Time (starring Kadokawa idol Tomoyo Harada) and the comparatively less well known Miss Lonely and His Motorbike Her Island (starring a very young and extremely skinny Riki Takeuchi). 1981’s School in the Crosshairs (ねらわれた学園, Nerawareta Gakuen) marks his first foray into into the world of idol cinema but it also stars one of Kadokawa’s most prominent idols in Hiroko Yakushimaru appearing just a few months before her star making role in Shinji Somai’s Sailor Suit and Machine Gun.

Set once again in a high school, School in the Crosshairs is the ultimate teen movie for any student who’s ever suspected their place of education has been infiltrated by fascists but no one else has noticed. Top student Yuka (Hiroko Yakushimaru) is the archetypal Obayashi/idol movie heroine in that she’s not only bright and plucky but essentially good hearted and keen to help out both her friends and anyone else in trouble. Her life changes when walking home from school one day with her kendo obsessed friend Koji (Ryoichi Takayanagi) as the pair notice a little kid about to ride his tricycle into the path of a great big truck. Yuka, horrified but not quite knowing what to do, shouts for the little boy to go back only it’s time itself which rewinds and moves the boy out of harm’s way. Very confused and thinking she’s had some kind of episode, Yuka tests her new psychic powers out by using them to help Koji finally win a kendo match but when a strange looking man who claims to be “a friend”  (Toru Minegishi) arrives along with icy transfer student Takamizawa (Masami Hasegawa), Yuka finds herself at the centre of an intergalactic invasion plot.

Many things have changed since 1981, sadly “examination hell” is not one of them. Yuka and Koji still have a few years of high school left meaning that it’s not all that serious just yet but still, their parents and teachers have their eyes firmly on the final grades. Yuka is the top student in her class, much to the chagrin of her rival, Arikawa (Macoto Tezuka), who surpasses her in maths and English but has lost the top spot thanks to his lack of sporting ability. Koji is among the mass of students in the middle with poor academic grades but showing athletic promise even if his kendo career is not going as well as hoped.

Given everyone’s obsession with academic success, the aliens have hit on a sure thing by infiltrating a chain of cram schools promising impressive results. Grades aside, parents are largely laissez-faire or absent, content to let their kids do as they please as long as their academic life proceeds along the desired route. Koji’s parents eventually hire Yuka as a private teacher to help him improve only for her to help him skip out to kendo practice. Her parents, by contrast, are proud of their daughter and attentive enough to notice something’s not right but attribute her recent preoccupation to a very ordinary adolescent problem – they think she’s fallen in love and they should probably leave her alone to figure things out her own way. A strange present of an empty picture frame may suggest they intend to give her “blank canvas” and allow her to decide the course of her own life, but she has, in a sense, earned this privilege through proving her responsible nature and excelling in the all important academic arena.

School is a battlefield in more ways than one. Intent on brainwashing the teenagers of Japan, “mysterious transfer student” Takamizawa has her sights firmly set on taking over the student council only she needs to get past Yuka to do it. Takamizawa has her own set of abilities including an icy stare which seems to make it impossible to refuse her orders and so she’s quickly instigated a kind of “morality” patrol for the campus to enforce all those hated school rules like skirt lengths, smoking, and running in the halls. Before long her mini militia has its own uniforms and creepy face paint but her bid for world domination hits a serious snag when Yuka refuses to cross over to the dark side and join the coming revolution. Asking god to grant her strength Yuka stands up to the aliens all on her own, avowing that she likes the world as it and is willing to sacrifice her own life for that of her friends. Accused of “wasting” her powers, Yuka asks how saving people could ever be “wasteful” and berates the invaders for their lack of human feeling. Faced with the cold atmosphere of exam stress and about to be railroaded into adulthood, Yuka dreams of a better, kinder world founded on friendship and basic human goodness.

Beginning with a lengthy psychedelic sequence giving way to a classic science fiction on screen text introduction Obayashi signals his free floating intentions with Yuka’s desaturated bedroom floating over the snowcapped mountains. Pushing his distinctive analogue effects to the limit, Obayashi creates a world which is at once real and surreal as Yuka finds herself at a very ordinary crossroads whilst faced with extraordinary events. Courted by the universe, Yuka is unmoved. Unlike many a teenage heroine, she realises that she’s pretty happy with the way things are. She likes her life (exam stress and all), she loves her friends, she’ll be OK. Standing up for the rights of the individual, but also for collective responsibility, Yuka claims her right to self determination but is determined not to leave any of her friends behind.


Original trailer (no subtitles)