There’s one image in Hanagatami, a film about a group of young adults in wartime Japan, that I just cannot shake. A vision of children parading through the forest gives way via dissolve to a cadre of marching soldiers, their faces painted white as ghosts. By director Nobuhiko Obayashi’s surrealist standards, this is child’s play: a simple cinematic device conveying a familiar idea. And yet the image startles with directness. Here is a film that is bizarre in its every aspect, from its outré cinematography to its dialed-up performances, that still must stop for a moment to distill the most primal horror in a single transition.
But death is never far from the film’s mind. How could it be? This is a film in which a young man, who in his English class wonders if Japan will go to war with Edgar Allan Poe’s country, develops a crush on a girl dying of tuberculosis. And this is a film made just after its director was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer and given six months to live. Obayashi has since beaten the odds and recovered, but Hanagatami, though possessed of a rare vigor, is not a film that views survival with joy. Instead, the possibility of outliving your friends is viewed here with a dread-filled skepticism as if anyone who does survive the war will still lead a broken life.
In this portrait of youth against the backdrop of escalating war, much of the action consists of dinner party attendance and increasingly knotty, constantly awkward romantic entanglements: sometimes it seems everybody is in love with everyone else. Even when romantic interest isn’t explicit, it is felt. A night out drinking ends with two boys naked astride a single horse galloping along the shore. But outside this tight circle of friends, draft cards are being drawn and the specter of war is grabbing their friends and mentors, just as it took those who died before the film’s action. It’s heavy stuff, naturally, but a buoyant performance from Shunsuke Kubozuka in the lead, a playful sense of humor, and a cinematographic creativity barely confined by the frame allow for a vitality in stark, brilliant contrast to the ghostly faces of soldiers marching towards death.
Which is to say that while fans of House, the director’s first feature and the only one of his film I had previously seen, will eventually get a taste of what they came for in a climactic sequence that rivals the delirious heights of that film, they will have to be patient. Yes, Obayashi’s unique visual tics are all still present: unsettling rapid cutting, featuring jump cuts that swap character positions along the x-axis; flat, colorful backgrounds that have been composited in from other sources; and sudden changes in color. But these techniques are employed less aggressively than in his horror classic, and with more purpose. Here, surrealism seems less the point in itself than the only method of grappling with the ineffable horrors of war and death.
Hanagatami had its Quebec premiere at the 2018 Fantasia International Film Festival.
Directed by Nobuhiko Obayashi; written by Chiho Katsura and Nobuhiko Obayashi; starring Shunsuke Kubozuka, Takako Tokiwa, and Honoka Yahagi; 169 minutes.