Caught in the reflection of a looming global conflict, the carefree souls that fill out Nobuhiko Obayashi’s unsurprisingly absurd and surreal latest waste away their last few months of innocence while the world and its war threaten to encroach on their idyllic seaside city. Like a wraith, Japan’s impending involvement in World War II looms over the almost parodically blithe Hanagatami that focuses in on a group of teenagers slowly coming to terms with their changing reality as they fritter away their youth chasing pointless fads and relationships with one another.
Even though he is extraordinarily esoteric in his visual language and motifs, Obayashi effectively sticks a pin into his theme and spends a frankly indulgent amount of time to convey it over a crashing wave of his pictorial fixations. The now 80-year-old director of the manic Hausu proves he still has the extravagance to envelop you into his world, but in getting nostalgic for his youth, he trades in his madcap experimentation for undemanding sentimentality.
In 1941 in Karatsu, obnoxiously plucky 17-year-old Toshihiko (Shunsuke Kubozuka, a man very clearly in his mid-30s by director’s design) lives with his wealthy aunt and tuberculosis-afflicted cousin Mina (Honoka Yahagi) as they go about their days in wanton luxury. Aunt Keiko (Takako Tokiwa) uncomfortably dotes on the ailing Mina, so the sheltered Toshihiko turns to his classmates for role models and grafts himself onto the mature, soldier poet in Ukai (Shinnosuke Mitsushima) and the stoic, sickly priest Kira (Keishi Nagatsuka) to assist in forming him into a man who will fight for his country.
Together the group, joined by two friends of Mina, muse about the future as the proverbial doomsday clock moves ever closer to midnight and war becomes a recurring fixture in their lives. Obayashi, despite the epic and subject matter he puts forth, concerns and localizes himself to just these youths’ experiences, and it makes for a intriguing but repetitive reliance on his manic style carrying his mundane substance.
While taking in Hanagatami I was concerned whether Obayashi was being pointedly cryptic or just irrational because it is difficult to separate his intentions from their effect. He doesn’t so much deconstruct or amplify a scene with his directing choices, like he did in the past, as much as he simply toys with them.
Shot on these garish sets with excessive green screen, which is deliberately poorly masked, the elderly director displays the visual curiosity and patience of a child as he arbitrarily zooms, pans, flips, mirrors and distorts his image without detectable reason. Granted, his swansong to youth remains legible even after all his needless superficial tweaks, but I feel the viewer may be more distracted than engaged by his mostly empty stylistic choices.
Where his experimentation finds a suitable outlet is in how he establishes an impending nightmare to crash into his dreamlike slice of youth. As the paths of Toshihiko, Ukai, Kira and Mina become more intertwined in each other’s lives, Hanagatami becomes more and more ephemeral as it counts down the days these kids have together.
Time becomes more ambiguous; sets, motifs and dialogue get repeated and inter-cut frequently; and the colors and visual metaphors become more striking. What it conveys is a frankly straightforward love triangle and loss of innocence at the most disastrous of times, but how it reaches such impactful levels lies solely in the design. To put it simply Obayashi has not lost his visual flair and you would be hard pressed to find another film, this or any other year, that engrosses the eye as much as this does, but it always feels like he finds the most ornate and evocative way to bookend a rather dull, tepid story.
Taking forever to sentimentalize over a turning point in his youth, Obayashi lets his visuals do all the heavy lifting to keep you interested, but it never commits enough to that idea to be truly effective. The epic length is never really justified, and while the sightseeing tour he offers carries the same psychedelic energy of his early work, he’s lacking the radical premise to give reason to his more erratic visual indulgences.
It feels like an entire history of esoteric Japanese popular culture has pushed the envelope since the original seedling that was 1977’s Hausu, and despite steadily working throughout his life, it has completely passed Obayashi by it seems. I don’t see the progression or refinement of technique that he initially displayed in this, the only other film of his to really achieve an international release. He very well could have made this exact film all the way back in the 1970s without changing a thing, and it is all for the worse that he didn’t.