Nobuhiko Obayashi is best known in the West for his 1977 horror film House (Hausu), but there’s much more to his long career, which spanned almost 60 years. Unfortunately, his films have not been easy to find in the United States, particularly on streaming services, so his work is not as well known here as it deserves to be. This general lack of accessibility makes the current availability of three of his four final films, known collectively as his “War Trilogy,” all the more notable. This is a rare chance to see several mature works by a filmmaker whose works are really not like those of anyone else.
Obayashi’s career path was anything but traditional. He began by making short experimental films that were shown in art galleries and the like, then segued to making TV commercials featuring internationally-known celebrities like Kirk Douglas and Catherine Deneuve. His feature debut, House, was critically panned upon its release, but became a cult hit. He made a films in a variety of styles, and in 1998, his film Sada, based on the story of Sada Abe, won the FIPRESCI Prize at the Berlin International Film Festival. Obayashi’s later films, including the three covered in this review, often interpret events and attitudes related to Japan’s involvement in World War II with a distinct antiwar slant
Casting Blossoms to the Sky (2012) is the most traditionally-constructed of the three films, and is a good starting point for viewers new to Obayashi’s work. This film is organized around the 2011 journey of journalist Reiko Endo (Yasuko Matsuyuki) to Nagaoka to report on a fireworks festival honoring the fallen victims of war. She also wants to meet up with her ex-boyfriend Kenichi Katayama (Masahiro Takashima), both because they parted on unfortunate terms, and to attend to attend a performance of a play written by Hana Motoki (Minami Inomata), one of his students, which concerns the bombing of Nagaoka during World War II. While in Nagaoka, Reiko hears many stories told by the townspeople regarding the war, which are both narrated and acted out in a series of sometimes surreal images. Casting Blossoms to the Sky is a quiet, mournful film, drawing analogies among various sources of human suffering without losing the individuality of those whose stories it tells.
Seven Weeks (2014) is set in Ashibetsu, a small town in northern Hokkaido (snow is a constant motif throughout this film, and not in a subtle way). The death of town resident Dr. Suzuki Mitsuo (Shinagawa Toru), at age 92, provides a narrative focus to explore the history of Ashibetsu, as family members and a nurse who worked for him (Takako Tokiwa) gather for his funeral and discuss times past. Decline is a constant theme, as town residents discuss the changing fortunes of their home, once a center of coal mining, whose fortunes and population have both declined due to the shift to alternative forms of energy. Secrets are also revealed concerning events that took place during World War II on Sakhalin Island (a northern island whose ownership was contested between Japan and Russia). Seven Weeks is a fast-moving film (the actors often speak at a screwball comedy pace), full of quirky performances and surreal touches (like a marching band that pops up several times in the film), yet it also feels strangely calm. That’s the wizardry of Obayashi—he has a full repertory of cinematic techniques in his arsenal, and if he sometimes chooses the most unexpected means to achieve a desired effect, there is no denying that he succeeds just about every time.
Hanagatami (2017), work on which began after Obayashi was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer, represents the fulfillment of one of his lifetime dreams—to make a film adaptation of Kazuo Dan’s 1937 novella. The story takes place in the spring of 1941, as 17-year-old student Toshihiko Sakakiyama (Shunsuke Kubozuka) arrives in Karatsu, a town on the southwestern coast of Kyushu. He and his classmates have the usual teenage concerns—falling in love, asserting their place in the pecking order, and enjoying their last moments of youth—but they play out in in the shadow of a looming war. Obayashi’s approach in this film is always stylized and never predictable, as he combines realistic period sets and costuming with distancing, surreal effects, from the casting of overage actors (Kubozuka was 36 as he played a 17-year-old) to distinctly non-naturalistic lighting, deliberately stilted acting, and dreamlike special effects (flower petals suffuse the screen in an early scene, and like the frequent use of green-screened imagery, they’re made to look distinctly unreal). It’s a real puzzle-piece of a film, but beautiful to see and well worth the effort. | Sarah Boslaugh
Nobuhiko Obayashi’s War Trilogy is playing in selected theaters, and is available for streaming through several different theatres; more information is available from the KimStim web site for Hanagatami, Seven Weeks, and Casting Blossoms to the Sky.