Despite a lengthy filmography that began in the 1960s, Nobuhiko Obayashi is known in the West mainly for his 1977 feature debut “House.” This horror-fantasy about a house that devours its inhabitants is a surreal riot of the imagination that tosses local filmmaking conventions out the window.
Four decades later the riot continues in Obayashi’s new film, “Hanagatami,” but the subject, based on Kazuo Dan’s 1937 novel, is the lives of teenagers in Karatsu, Saga Prefecture, on the eve of war. Instead of toning down his signature style for this tragic story of youth cut short, Obayashi amplifies it. The result is a phantasmagoria of rapid cutting, perfervid acting and extravagant visuals, with the moon a giant ball bathing the sea and islands near Karatsu in heavenly splendor. It’s as though every frame has been Photoshopped out of any relation to reality.
The film is excessive in another sense: The three male leads are all well past 25 and look like cosplayers in their high school uniforms.
Over the film’s nearly three-hour running time, this overblown approach ought to amount to a throbbing headache. Instead, Obayashi has captured not only the atmosphere but also the spiritual essence of a strange, febrile moment in time.
Far from being a nostalgic period piece made by an elderly director looking back to the Japan of his childhood, “Hanagatami” is both a timely warning against war’s collective insanities and an urgent plea for peace. It’s a hallucinatory illustration of the maxim that fiction — in this case, Obayashi’s combination of deep memory and delirious visions — can reveal more than fact.
The film’s memoirist is Toshihiko Sakakiyama (Shunsuke Kubozuka), who returns from Amsterdam, where his parents are living, to Karatsu. Only 17, he stays with his wealthy aunt Keiko (Takako Tokiwa) and attends the local boys’ high school.
There he befriends three classmates: the frenetic, good-natured Aso (Tokio Emoto); the athletic, super-sincere Ukai (Shinnosuke Mitsushima), a god in human form to the impressionable Toshihiko; and the tall, limping Kira (Keishi Nagatsuka), trailing an air of tragic doom.
With his worldly aunt serving as social facilitator, Toshihiko’s new home becomes the nexus of a circle that includes not only the above threesome but also his beautiful, tubercular cousin Mina (Honoka Yahagi), the exuberant Akine (Hirona Yamazaki) and the moody, arty Chitose (Mugi Kadowaki), with her camera always at the ready.
Their life of dinner parties in Keiko’s elegant home and picnics on Saga’s wind-swept coast must have been unimaginable to ordinary Japanese of the era, but these festivities have a hectic atmosphere, with everyone desperately celebrating their youth while knowing their world is rushing headlong over a cliff.
Meanwhile, ghostly soldiers with white-painted faces march off to war to waving flags. Their progress, viewed repeatedly in the course of the film, builds a cumulative power, like a recurring nightmare.
At the same time, Toshihiko’s wide-eyed infatuation with Ukai has a risibly homoerotic subtext. In one moonlit scene they strip naked, jump on a horse and gallop down the beach, looking like subjects in a Tom of Finland book cover.
At the same time, they burn with a purity that is very much of the period — and is now all but vanished. Almost alone among working Japanese directors, Obayashi not only remembers that time but also revives it — or rather his fever dream of it.