With the unconventional, emotionally engrossing Hanagatami, maverick indie director Nobuhiko Obayashi wraps up his anti-war trilogy that includes Casting Blossoms to the Sky (2012) and Seven Weeks (2014). Based on a novel by Kazuo Dan, Hanagatami (The Flower Basket) follows a group of adolescent friends living in an idyllic seaside town in the months leading up to Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor and entry into World War II. Nearly three hours of dense storytelling roll by while a sprawling and vividly drawn cast of characters explore young love and the meaning of life. Everything is overshadowed by the knowledge that few of them are likely to survive the coming conflagration.
The 69-year-old Obayashi, who has directed some 40 feature films, had the idea of bringing Kazuo’s 1937 novel to the screen back in the 1970s, after his 1977 ghost story House brought him before world audiences. But the zeitgeist wasn’t right for a war film. Postponed for decades, this plaintive lament for wasted young lives is deeply felt and quite moving. In a short prologue that adds a personal dimension, the narrator/director reminds the audience that what follows is not nostalgia, but the heartache of everything that has been devoured and lost by war.
This urgent but general message might well have been lost itself in a more conventional film. Here it bursts out in a jarring, iconoclastic directing style of inspired rule-breaking. The early black-and-white scenes bring to mind silent cinema and come as an aesthetic shock wave, no doubt meant to disorient the audience. As Obayashi deliberately overturns the conventions of acting, setting and cinematography, there are a lot of adjustments to be made by the audience, but it doesn’t take long to get into the groove.
Soon the film’s theatrical sets and back-projected seas seem just right to convey the unspeakable idea that youth is an acceptable sacrifice. Grossly overage actors, lead by the 35-year-old Shunsuke Kubozuka, play naughty schoolboys. Patently fake CGI cherry blossoms and fireflies dot the screen like blotches on a modern painting. A few bars of Bach’s “Cello Suite No. 1” are recurrently looped on the soundtrack in an audio water torture that might best have been avoided.
Against the romantically unreal background of Karatsu in the Saga prefecture, the dark-eyed, 16-year-old Mina (young TV actress Honoka Yahagi) is gracefully dying of TB just like her brother, who enrolled in the Manchurian campaign so that his death would not be wasted. Mina is lovingly cared for by his beautiful, fatalistic young widow Keiko (Takako Tokiwa) in their family house by the sea. This is where Toshihiko (Shunsuke), who has been living in Amsterdam, is sent to live by his parents. Immature to the point of being goofy, he’s a lovable boy who easily makes new friends when he arrives in Karatsu.
He makes no secret of his outright admiration for the handsome, manly Ukai (Shinnosuke Mitsushima), whom he calls a lion and who he finds late one night in the woods smoking a cigarette and playing the flute. His other notable classmate is the lame, embittered Kira (Keishi Nagatsuka), who walks with a twisted cane and dresses in the tattered robes of a Zen monk. Their friendship with Mina and two of her girlfriends offers the occasion for picnics by the sea and, later, tentative explorations of mutual attraction.
Sexual feelings remain fluid in the film as couples pair off and recombine. Though homosexuality is not explicitly mentioned, there are kisses between women, and more than a suggestion that Ukai responds to the crush Toshihiko has on him. The two boys share a rather extraordinary horseback ride in the moonlight, both drunk and stark naked.
Meanwhile, recruitment posters and posed pictures of soldiers foreshadow their fate, while aged hookers in bars mourn them in advance. The class clown Aso (Tokio Emoto) is the first to be drafted, and he bids a hysterical farewell to his friends as he marches off. A student wonders if being at war with America means they’ll no longer be able to read Edgar Allan Poe in class. But the brighter ones ponder whether it isn’t better to die by one’s own hand, rather than let oneself be killed. In the film’s poignant last act, set during a colorful local festival, the young soldiers bid a final farewell to each other and their youth.
As expressive as a tragedian in the key role of Toshihiko, Shunsuke bonds the group of friends together with his immature eagerness. The fact that he looks twice the age he’s supposed to be playing forces the viewer to reflect. Keishi is similarly out of time in the intense, ambiguous role of Kira. Despite his physical weakness, he has unrivaled inner strength to face every challenge. The actresses are strongly individualized, with young Honoka rising above her invalid status and the bright red blood she coughs up on snow-white dresses to make her own doomed romantic choices.
Production company: Producers System Co.
Cast: Shunsuke Kubozuka, Honoka Yahagi, Shinnosuke Mitsushima, Keishi Nagatsuka, Takako Tokiwa, Tokio Emoto, Hirona Yamazaki, Mugi Kadowaki, Takehiro Murata
Director: Nobuhiko Obayashi
Screenwriter: Nobuhiko Obayashi, Chiho Katsura
Producers: Terumichi Yamazaki, Kyoko Obayashi
Director of photography: Hisaki Sanbongi
Production designer: Toshiharu Aida
Costume designers: Koichi Fujisaki, Shigeru Moriwaki
Editors: Nobuhiko Obayashi, Hisaki Sanbongi
Music: Kosuke Yamashita
Venue: Shanghai Film Festival (New From Auteur section)
World sales: Free Stone Productions