Monday, July 16, 2018

Fantasia 2018--Hanagatami--Nubuhiko Obayashi (2017)

A dying Mina, superimposed over a giant moon, in Nobuhiko Obayashi's bewildering Hanagatami (2017)
People often ask me, when I'm taking notes in a movie theater while a film unfolds, if I'm afraid of missing something when I take a moment to look down at where my pen is hitting the page.  The answer is an emphatic "yes"--even though I'm used to writing in the dark, some films are really challenging to grasp on a first (or second, or third) screening.  With Nubuhiko Obayashi's Hanagatami (2017), the frame is so rich with visuals, the story so dense, that I'm not sure the film would become any clearer on repeat viewings.  Based on a novel by Kazuo Dan by the same name, Hanagatami ostensibly follows a group of teenagers, just before the attack on Pearl Harbor during World War II, grappling with their relationships (friendship and romantic) as their lives are forever changed by war's onset.  This description is bare bones, because most of the time I had no idea what was going on--perhaps because of my glancing familiarity with Japanese history and literature, as well as some of the oblique, but clearly significant, cultural references littered throughout the film.  As the trailer for the film makes clear, Obayashi's playful use of superimposition, optical printing, and multi-layered composition, accompanied by very stylized acting, is geared toward the adventurous cinephile.  The film exhibits a studied artificiality in both style and performance that doesn't really allow viewers to immerse themselves in this world.  I saw many gorgeous images onscreen, and if that's enough to sustain you for the film's near three hour running time, take a chance on it.  Also, understanding Japanese is a plus--there's quite a bit of dialogue and it's delivered pretty quickly.
A still from Hausu (House) by Nubuhiko Obayashi (1977)
and another
and yet another from Hausu (1977)
I signed on to Hanagatami (2017) based on the many surreal, absurd, and glorious virtues of the director's cult film Hausu/House (1977), where a bunch of schoolgirls visit one of their aunt's houses in the country, and the house proceeds to devour them in a host of unique and imaginative ways.  Watch the trailer to sample some of its many charms.  The film is so out there that viewers are swept along by a gory visual maelstrom.  Hanagatami samples some of the same collage effects on display in Hausu, but wraps them in a seemingly romantic epic regarding lost youth in a time of war.  Not quite as effective, or perhaps just not what might be expected if one has limited exposure to Obayashi's oeuvre.
(from left) Toshi, Aso, Ukai, and Kira...are all supposed to be in high school
A couple of things kept me from really engaging with Hanagatami.  First, the main male leads are all supposed to be HIGH SCHOOL BOYS.  Yep.  Obviously the casting is deliberate, right?  But what does it signify that Keishi Nagatsuka, who plays Kira, looks to be in his 40s, and has gray glittering in his facial hair.  Toshi tries to counteract the fact that he easily looks twice his age (17) by acting quite broadly, like a silent-movie hero, but ultimately coming across as goofy.  Likewise, Mina, the "teenager" tragically dying from TB, seems to be the hinge on which all hetero-eroticism in the film swings; still, I think viewers looking for implied queerness between characters can mine quite a few interactions, especially those between Toshi and Ukai (who both have their share of nude scenes).  Further, I'm not sure how well known Kazuo Dan's book is to viewers, but there were moments that I was absolutely certain that the subtitles MUST NOT be accurately translated.  What are these characters saying???

"sixteen-year-old girls" hanging out in Hanagatami
Hanagatami is a visually striking and imaginative film that failed to connect with me, perhaps because I was expecting more of the bloody mayhem of Hausu.  The film's vivid garishness was fun for the eye, but at nearly three hours, it takes a certain level of commitment from viewers that I clearly just...don't...have.  As I left the theater, Thierry, who has been working at Fantasia since I first started attending, gave me a quick hug and asked me if I was going to write on this oddball film.  Indeed I have, but I wish I could recommend the film more.  I can recommend Hausu without reservation.