The Discarnates (異人たちとの夏, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1988)

discarnatesNobuhiko Obayashi is no stranger to a ghost story whether literal or figural but never has his pre-occupation with being pre-occupied about the past been more delicately expressed than in his 1988 horror-tinged supernatural adventure, The Discarnates (異人たちとの夏, Ijintachi to no Natsu). Nostalgia is a central pillar of Obayashi’s world, as drenched in melancholy as it often is, but it can also be pernicious – an anchor which pins a person in a certain spot and forever impedes their progress.

Hidemi Harada (Morio Kazama) is a successful TV scriptwriter whose career is on the slide. He’s just gotten a divorce and seems to be conflicted about the nature of his new found bachelordom. As if he didn’t have enough despair in his life, the closest thing he has to a friend – his boss at the TV station, tells him he thinks it’s better if they end their professional relationship because he plans to start dating Harada’s ex-wife and it would all get very awkward.

Feeling unloved, Harada takes a trip to his hometown on a location scout for another project and takes in a few familiar sights along the way. It’s here that he runs into a youngish man who looks just like Harada’s father did when he was a boy. Not only that, accompanying his new found friend home, the man’s wife looks just like his mother, but Harada’s parents died when he was just twelve years old. The mysterious couple are glad to have him in their house and treat him with the warmth and kindness that seemed to have been missing in his life, leaving him the happiest and most cheerful he’s been in years.

Now in a much better mood, Harada feels guilty about rudely dismissing the woman from upstairs who’d come to visit him the day before. Apologising, Harada strikes up a friendship and then a romance with the equally damaged Kei (Yuko Natori) but even if his mental health is improving, his physical strength begins to deteriorate. Looking pale and old, Harada’s teeth rot and fall out while his hair loses its color. Even so, Harada cannot bear to pull himself away from the warmth and security that was so cruelly taken away from him when he was just a child.

Harada doesn’t start off believing that the mysterious couple really are his late parents, but if even if they weren’t these two people who are actually younger than him take him in as a son, feeding and entertaining him. When Harada returns a little while later confused by what exactly has happened, his mother immediately treats him as a mother would – physically taking off his polo shirt and urging him to remove his trousers lest they get wrinkled from sitting on the floor. Having lost his parents at such a young age, Harada has been a adrift all his life, unable to form true, lasting emotional bonds with other people. Lamenting his failure as a husband and a father, this very ordinary kindness provides the kind of warmth that he’s been craving.

However, there is always a price to be paid. Harada’s visits become increasing tiring, taking a physical toll on his ageing body. Each hour spent in the past is an hour lost to the dead. His parents are both dead and alive, existing in a strange, golden hued bubble filled with the comforting innocence of childhood free from the concerns of the adult world. Yet each time Harada succumbs to his weakness and goes to visit them, he is doing so as a way of avoiding all of his real world problems. According to one of Harada’s scripts, the past becomes a part of you and is never lost, but memory can be an overly seductive drug and an overdose can prove fatal.

Contrasted with the warm glow of the post-war world of Harada’s childhood home, his life in bubble era Tokyo is one filled with blues and a constant sense of the sinister. Harada believes himself to mostly be alone in the apartment block save for a mysterious third floor light that hints at another resident who also favours late nights over early mornings. The light turns out to belong to a lonely middle-aged woman, Kei, who is also a fan of Harada’s work. Kei has her own set of problems including a wound on her chest that she is too ashamed to let anyone see. Ultimately, Harada’s self-centred inability to lay the past to rest and fully take other people’s feelings into account will deal Kei a cruel blow.

Harada sees everything with a writer’s eye. His childhood world is a dream, but his life is a film noir filled with shadows and misery. His environments appear too perfectly composed, like a TV stage set and, as if to underline the fact, at the end of each “scene” the colour drains from the screen to leave a blue tinted black and white image shrinking into a rectangle and disappearing like the dot going out in the days when television really did close down overnight. Whether any of this happened outside of Harada’s mind or reflects a constructed reality he wrote for himself in the midst of a mental breakdown, his dilemma is an existential one – return to childhood and the side of his parents by accepting the death of his present self, or say goodbye to remnants of the abandoned child inside him and start living an adult, fully “fleshed” life by killing off this unattainable dream of a long forgotten past which never took place.

Filled with melancholy, longing and regret, The Discarnates is the story of a hollow man made whole by coming to terms with his traumatic past and all of the ways it’s influenced the way in which he’s lived his life. Harada’s parents treat him as their twelve year old son, barely acknowledging that he’s a middle aged man with a teenage son of his own. They feel regret for all of the thousand things they were never able to teach him though they are unable to see the full depths of his inability to escape his interior bubble for the wider world. Unsettling, though not as obviously surreal as some of Obayashi’s other efforts, The Discarnates is one of his most melancholic works speaking of the danger of nostalgia and all of its false promises whilst also acknowledging its seductive appeal.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Goodbye for Tomorrow (あした, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1995)

goodbye for tomorrowAfter completing his first “Onomichi Trilogy” in the 1980s, Obayashi returned a decade later for round two with another three films using his picturesque home town as a backdrop. Goodbye For Tomorrow (あした, Ashita) is the second of these, but unlike Chizuko’s Younger Sister or One Summer’s Day which both return to Obayashi’s concern with youth, Goodbye For Tomorrow casts its net a little wider as it explores the grief stricken inertia of a group of people from all ages and backgrounds left behind when a routine ferry journey turns into an unexpected tragedy.

Three months after nine people were drowned when a local ferry sank in the harbour, friends and relatives of the dead begin to receive messages signed by their loved ones instructing them to be at a small island at midnight. Cruel joke or not, each of the still grieving recipients makes their way to the boathouse, clutching the desperate hope that the dead will really return to them. Sure enough, on the stroke of midnight the ghostly boat rises from the ocean floor bringing a collection of lost souls with it, but its stay is a temporary one – just long enough to say goodbye.

Obayashi once again begins the film with an intertile-style message to the effect that sometimes meetings are arranged just to say goodbye. He then includes two brief “prequel” sequences to the contemporary set main narrative. The first of these takes place ten years previously in which a boy called Mitsugu throws a message wrapped around a rock into a school room where his friend Noriko is studying. We then flash forward to three months before the main action, around the time of the boat accident, where an assassination attempt is made on the life of a local gangster in a barber shop. At first the connection between these events is unclear as messages begin to arrive in innovative ways in the film’s “present”. After a while we begin to realise that the recipients of the messages are so shocked to receive them because they believe the senders to be dead.

At three months since the sinking, the grief is still raw and each of our protagonists has found themselves trapped in a kind of inertia, left alone so suddenly without the chance to say goodbye. The left behind range from a teenager whose young love story has been severed by tragedy, a middle aged man who lost a wife and daughter and now regrets spending so much time on something as trivial as work, a middle aged trophy wife and the colleague who both loved a successful businessman, two swimmers with unresolved romances, and the yakuza boss who lost his wife and grandson. For some the desire is to join their loved ones wherever it is that they’re going, others feel they need to live on with double the passion in the name of the dead but they are all brought together by a need to meet the past head on and come to terms with it so that they can emerge from a living limbo and decide which side of the divide they need to be on.

Aside from the temporary transparency of the border between the mortal world and that of the dead, the living make an intrusion in the form of the ongoing yakuza gang war. The Noriko (Kaori Takahashi) from the film’s prequel sequence also ends up at the meeting point through sheer chance, as does the Mitsugu (Yasufumi Hayashi), now a gangster and charged with the unpleasant task of offing the old man despite his longstanding debt of loyalty to him. These are the only two still living souls brought together by an unresolved message bringing the events full circle as they achieve a kind of closure (with the hope of a new beginning) on their frustrated childhood romance.

The other two hangers on, an ambitious yakuza with a toothache played by frequent Obayashi collaborator Ittoku Kishibe, and a lunatic wildcat sociopath played by the ubiquitous Tomorowo Taguchi, are more or less comic relief as they hide out in the forrest confused by the massing group of unexpected visitors who’ve completely ruined their plot to assassinate the old yakuza boss and assume control of the clan. However, they too are also forced to face the relationship problems which bought them to this point and receive unexpected support from the boss’ retuned spouse who points out that this situation is partly his own fault for failing to appreciate the skills of each of his men individually. The boss decides to make a sacrifice in favour of the younger generation but his final acts are those of forgiveness and a plea for those staying behind to forget their differences and work together.

Revisiting Obayashi’s frequent themes of loss and the need to keep living after tragedy strikes, Goodbye For Tomorrow is a melancholy character study of the effects of grief when loved ones are taken without the chance for goodbyes. Aside from the earliest sepia tinged sequence, Obayashi plays with colour less than in his other films but manages to make the improbable sight of the sunken boat rising from the bottom of the sea genuinely unsettling. The supernatural mixes with the natural in unexplained ways and Obayashi even makes room for The Little Girl Who Conquered Time’s Tomoyo Harada as a mysterious spirit of loneliness, as well as a cameo for ‘80s leading man Toshinori Omi. The Japanese title of the film simply means “tomorrow” which gives a hint as to the broadly positive sense of forward motion in the film though the importance “goodbye” is also paramount. The slight awkwardness of the English title is therefore explained – saying goodbye to yesterday is a painful act but necessary for tomorrow’s sake.


 

The Drifting Classroom (漂流教室, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1987)

Drifting ClassroomNobuhiko Obayashi may have started out as an experimental filmmaker and progressed to a lengthy narrative film career but he remains best known for his “what the hell am I watching?” cult classic Hausu. Aside from his 1983 take on The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, very little of his other work has travelled outside of Japan. In the case of 1987’s The Drifting Classroom (漂流教室, Hyoryu Kyoshitsu), this is doubly surprising firstly because it’s based on a hugely popular manga by the godfather of horror comics Kazuo Umezu and secondly because it’s set in an international school so around 80% of the dialogue is in English.

Obayashi jettisons most of Umezu’s original plot which involves an ordinary Japanese school being suddenly and mysteriously uprooted from its city centre location leaving only a gaping hole to mark its place. This time our hero is Shou – a teenage boy who has recently returned from living in LA and is attending Kobe International School until his Japanese improves enough to get into a normal establishment. Having lived abroad for so long, Shou is a totally Americanised boy with a rebellious, individualistic streak and just wants to hang out with his cool American pals rather than study like his parents want him to do so he can get a foot on the all important ladder of the Japanese educational system. Consequently he argues with his mother and says some very harsh things which leads to her telling him to get out and not to bother coming back – sentiments which both are about to spend the rest of their lives regretting.

Right before taking the register some weird shit goes down and there’s an intense storm which fills most of the school building with sand. Looking out of the windows, everything seems to have become desert. The kids and the two remaining teachers think about what to do and settle on practical things like rationing the food and water left in the school canteen. Back in Kobe, there’s just a giant hole in the ground and a whole lot of confusion….

For some reason, Obayashi decided to set the story in an international school which means that most of the dialogue is in English (though judging by the accents and languages there are some Europeans and students from other parts of Asia around too). This is the single worst decision of the adaptation as the dialogue, which is overly silly to begin with, is offered in stilted, halting tones by its disappointing child actors with the native English speakers not doing very much better than the Japanese kids who are at least trying their best. Perhaps for these reasons (or just out of operational necessities) the film is entirely shot in non-sync sound and the dubbing never quite links up either.

It almost seems as if Obayashi is targeting an overseas audience as his tone is very much indebted to ‘80s kids’ movies with its cast of slightly plucky (sometimes irritatingly so) youngsters trying to solve the mystery of their own disappearance. However, it doesn’t seem as if the film was ever released outside of Japan (where it has never even been released on DVD) despite the presence of one time American star Troy Donohue leaving the strange Americanisms as a sort of exotic plot element with no real resolution.

Though the story seems to be aimed at older children with the usual themes of perseverance in times of adversity and the importance of teamwork and friendship, there are a few scary moments including a psycho style gag where a teacher’s head spins round before dissolving into sand. However, the majority of the special effects are extremely unconvincing resembling an ‘80s kids TV programme with a host of matte paintings, bad green screen, early digital effects and even some tokusatsu style people in rubber suits playing strange cockroach-like monsters. Arguably the best of these is the friendly creature who hangs round with the kids from school and most closely resembles a disgruntled potato with legs (but may actually be giving the most accomplished performance in the entire film).

All of this could have added to the film’s kitsch, “bad movie” vibe but Obabyashi opts to get serious every now and then and ruins everyone’s fun in the process. Weirdly, everyone just seems to accept the “timeslip” argument right away as if that’s a perfectly normal thing that happens every now and then like sinkholes or spontaneous human combustion – there’s even a geologist (?) being interviewed on the news who just says “yes – it is probably a timeslip” when asked to provide some “scientific commentary” on the disappearance of the school children. Completely bizarre but not in a very interesting way, The Drifting Classroom is a misfire on all levels neither making a good adaptation of its source material or an entertaining movie in its own right. Camp classics enthusiasts or Obayashi fanatics only.


The Drifting Classroom was also adapted into a TV drama in 2002 under the title of Long Love Letter which is much better than this movie.

A short scene from the film starring its best character whom I have decided to name “Spuddy” (English dialogue):