I watched some more movies!
野のなななのか (“Seven Weeks” in English – rather less memorable huh…)
This is the second movie in the set of three Nobuhiko Obayashi directed movies that I started recently with この空の花 長岡花火物語. Now knowing how long and likely very involved this was going to be, I was very intimidated by it, and at least once started to watch it and decided not to, trying to make sure I was in the right mood for it.
And I was right to be intimidated as this was surely the most difficult movie I’ve seen without subtitles to date! Not so much because of language (it’s regular people talking in a mostly modern setting), but because of it’s length and intricacy. Where この空の花 was a “video essay” and had a lot of subtitled phrases popping up constantly, this is a family drama with a large cast of characters that provides no such crutch. The movie is mostly dialogue, and it’s often between many speakers at once, pursing multiple conversation threads, with also interjections coming in from past versions of characters (for example, in an early scene a man on his death bed will say things to the audience that the other characters don’t seem to hear while they hold their own conversation). Similar to the earlier movie, this one also digs deep into the local flavor and history of a particular city (in this case 芦別市, a mining town in Hokkaido) while also tying characters’ pasts together with 20th century Japanese history (in this case particularly Sakhalin around WW2 - expect to get used to hearing the word からふと). All put together, it’s a lot to deal with.
I think I did okay? I had to especially remind myself that I wouldn’t lose out on anything by watching with not-great listening skills, that I could always consult the English subtitles or other sources later on if I wanted to, etc. and I made sure to consult the Japanese wikipedia page for its summary and (very useful) list of character names and relations to cross-reference with what I was hearing. I certainly didn’t grasp every nuance, but I think I basically got the idea? And maybe more importantly - I think if I ask myself the question “would I have preferred watching this with English subtitles?” the answer is no (albeit not as 100% confident as I would like - call it 75% confident perhaps) so I’d call that a win.
For the first half of the movie, I was wondering if I should stop and read the source material the movie is adapted from first. In the middle of the movie, I stopped and did some more research - and I came to the conclusion that the 原作 (that English sources in particular seem vague or confused on what it is) is in fact a play that’s unavailable in print - based on the author being listed a playwright in his JP wikipedia page, and only the movie coming up when I try to google for it. And in retrospect, it makes perfect sense! As the characters often address the audience and monologue in a very play-like way - even that conversational back-and-forth between different threads that I described feels very playlike, come to think of it.
So I’m glad I took that break to look that up, as it eased my mind and stopped me from wondering about that for the rest of the movie.
As for the actual content and story of the movie… well, I like it! I find the family drama engaging, and enjoyed getting to know the various members, as well as the town, Ashibetsu. As usual it takes a little getting used to Obayashi’s trademark style (and green screens) but it mostly takes a back seat I’d say in this one. I had some misgivings about the ultimate source of the dead doctor’s trauma at the heart of the movie - that (from what I understood), Soviets attacked while they were on Sakhalin and his lover was raped by a soldier, who he killed and then had to kill her when she asked him to, with her reincarnation / ghost (?) later coming to him many lears later in the form of another girl (?). The misgivings I guess just being the garishness of Obayashi’s style not being fully suited to handle that sensitive subject sensitively there, and gender-wise I feel like there’s at least something to unpack and explore around what all’s going on there that I’m not enthusiastic about unpacking myself that I think prevented me from being 100% fully onboard with what the movie’s doing, but I do think it’s definitely interesting, and often touching.
(And I do kinda wish it was a novel after all, as it would be a fun one to read…)
修羅雪姫 怨み恋歌 (“Lady Snowblood: Love Song of Vengeance” in English)
This is the Lady Snowblood sequel – it’s an original script separate from the manga, so it’s doing a bit of it’s own thing. It’s kind of a weird mess of a movie, honestly! Lady Snowblood loses a lot of her Lady Snowblood-ness, mostly getting to do cool things only at the beginning and the end from what I can recall, and the movie leans heavily into both Meiji-era flavor and politics, and cartoon villains involved in that. In the special features on the blu-ray, the manga writer (who I only then figured out also wrote Lone Wolf and Cub - makes a lot of sense in retrospect) talks mainly about how clever his idea for Snowblood’s origin was, while the scriptwriter for this movie talks pretty much exclusively about the interesting politics behind Lady Snowblood, and how the revenge she fights for is also revenge on behalf of the common folk tread on by statesmen who are building a nation without heed for who falls into the cracks. Which is definitely in the manga too! But I really do think it comes through that that’s the part he found interesting and wanted to focus on, as it’s much stronger and potentially sophisticated, with a protagonist anarchist character apparently based on a real person executed for attempting to assinate the Meiji emperor, and incidentally played by, of all people, Juzo Itami, who would go on to be a famous director whose work I haven’t seen yet but have heard great things about and definitely will in the future), and the antagonists being part of the oppressive secret police… but that potential sophistication, while promising, is largely squandered because the villains are cartoons and ultimately it’s still just a straightforward revenge action movie.
But! The guy playing the main villain is one of my favorite actors from this era, Shin Kishida, who I loved in 怪奇大作戦! I put his name in my anki deck so when I saw 岸田森 in the cast in the opening titles I cheered! He might as well be playing a vampire in this movie, gaunt and sinister and very obviously signaling “bad guy,” but I am endeared to him nonetheless.
All in all - an interesting mix of potential and kinda silly fun. The period-ness of it and the set design is really cool though and definitely puts it up a notch, and the climax at the temple is particularly spectacular.
And as always, Meiko Kaji is very cool (but it seems like they didn’t get her to do a theme song for this one…)
マタンゴ (“Matango” in English, bet you wouldn’ta guessed that)
This is a Toho monster movie (non-giant division) directed by Ishiro Honda (who directed Godzilla) with effects by Eiji Tsuburaya (who did effects for tons of tokusatsu movies of the era, incl. Godzilla, and founded the studio that made Ultraman), and I heard some very positive things about it in the lead-up to watching it, so there was a lot of positive build-up going in!
And those expectations I’d say were met! It’s a surprisingly very eerie and serious movie - not nearly as cheesy and kid-oriented as the Godzilla movies were becoming around that time, about an ill-fated group of yachters ending up on an island following a storm and slowly coming apart at the seams due to the horror they find there (not dissimilar really to Zombi 2, which I also watched recently).
The most effective element I think is definitely the sets - the fungus-drenched rooms in particular are so, so cool-looking, and provide a ton of charm and eeriness, similar to exploring in a Resident Evil game, and there’s a ton of them. Once the mushroom people start walking around, there are times when the effects lean a little more towards the Disney World fantasy effect than eerie, but I still found it charming and more effective than I would have guessed for the time and plot.
The cast (all made up of faces vaguely familiar to me from when I was watching showa-era Godzilla movies, now with names in my anki so next time I’ll know who they are) also does a good job selling it. I’m still kind of sad Sakuda betrayed the others. One name I recognized in the credits (he’s a main star in Ultra Q), Kenji Sahara, plays a dramatically different character from the ones I know him from as a sleazebag who wears sunglasses 100% of the time, so I definitely wouldn’t have picked him out if his name weren’t in my anki deck.
I like the frame device - there’s a really otherworldly panorama of a city at night. I suppose the story is probably about drugs, huh. Little bit of mixed feelings about that.
I watched this on a Japanese blu-ray which thankfully had Japanese subtitles included! So I think I was A-OK on the comprehension front. There’s also a bunch of interesting extras I’d like to take a look at soon, in particular a commentary track! I don’t think I’ve come across a full commentary track in Japanese before! I listened to a little bit and I think I’d manage it okay, so I’ll have to give it a shot! I’ll probably count it as another movie and talk about it here…
花筐 (“Hanagatami” in English – at least now you know the reading…)
This is the third and last of those three loosely related late-period Obayashi movies about war and particular cities. And I think the most interesting! Which is saying a whole lot.
For this one, I saw that it was based on a short story, so I read that first (via this collection on bookwalker). The only context I have for the story, is that it’s from 1937, and while it seems like nowadays the movie’s fame precedes the original, the author, 檀一雄, would win the Naoki prize for later work and was friends or acquaintances with Osamu Dazai, and apparently he or this story in particular was admired by Yukio Mishima (for whatever that’s worth). Apparently Obayashi had wanted to adapt the story for an extremely long time and had written a script for it in the 70s but ended up going in a more commercial direction and making House.
Anyway, the story itself is quite interesting, and quite difficult – it’s very literary (wikipedia calls it “純文学”) in the sense that it’s more about complicated character interactions and feelings than a direct plot arc, and important things are often only briefly or obliquely alluded to. I read it quicker than I should have, knowing I was going to try to watch the movie the same day, and without context there were some things I missed or took a while to figure out, but I did get the gist: it’s a 青春 novel about young people on the cusp of adulthood interacting and experimenting and struggling to formulate what adult life will mean for them, with the implicit tragic background that the answer may very well end up being a swift death in war. The characters cut class and smoke and kiss and frame their feelings in a complex give-and-take of fear and bravery.
Next, I watched the movie. And again… it’s very very interesting!
Immediately following the original like this, the comparison between it and the adaptation was very distracting and arresting, both in terms of wondering why Obayashi made certain changes and which ones, and in terms of wondering what I had missed in my original sloppy reading that Obayashi’s version could enlighten me on.
The combination of the literary mode in the story, which is virtuosic and particular in its own way, with Obayashi’s characteristic style, which is virtuosic and particular in a completely, completely different way, is such a strange combination. It’s a little like… like if Wes Anderson directed an adaptation of like, To the Lighthouse? A little like that. The movie is thoughtful and behaves like a complex literary film, but it’s got those Obayashi-isms like the bad green screens, the weird compositing, the… particular way actors seem to be directed that I wouldn’t be able to describe well. All of which are jarring and peculiar in like, House, and maybe even more jarring and peculiar here in such a different context.
One particular interesting choice is the casting – the book is extremely about teenagers. The main character is 17, and the main trio of boys are all in the same class. The actors… are not teenagers, and do not read as teenagers to me really at all. The guy playing Kira in particular is like, in his 40s at the time? And looks like it? And to be fair – that character is described like this: sickly, showing signs of balding, abnormally gigantic head, always wears green.
… So it’s not exactly your classic teenager look. But in lieu of the head thing it seems like they leaned heavily into making him seem older and reclusive, interpreting the “green” clothes as like, almost like a friar or grim reaper costume?
And – so ok – one thing I felt strongly about the story is that everyone should be hot (to eachother, at least). The main engine of the story is the main POV, 榊山, literally being attracted to the characters around him (mainly 鵜飼 and 吉良 but the girls too), seeing how they hold themselves and the choices they make and wanting to hang out with and emulate them. And I think that produces/goes along with a certain amount of homoeroticism. For example, there’s how Ukai swimming nude is described as extremely beautiful to Sakakiyama to the point of distracting him later on, or the scene were Sakakiyama and Ukai spend a drunken courageous night running across the mainy railway tracks at a train station (while we learn later Ukai was watching), which in a sort of hard to explain and diffuse sort of way I think works like an intimate culmination between those characters, as they physically go against the grain and the tracks laid by society while being extremely physically close and giddy with each other – which in particular is adapted in a very interesting way where it’s replaced with a nude horse ride! Making it much more explicitly homoerotic while I feel like in doing so sort of defusing it? Like it comes across more to me as like – a nature metaphor maybe – and I guess what I’m trying to say is that the movie version of Sakakiyama feels like a plucky drama protagonist who’s just happy to be there, the movie version of Ukai feels beautiful but cold and stern, and the movie version of Kira feels like Gargamel.
Which was an interesting lens to reflect on how I felt about the story! I’m meandering quite a lot here - but I ended up reading the short story again the day after watching the movie, a lot more carefully and with the visual context and interpretation fresh in my head – and there’s definitely stuff in those characterizations for example that I had missed the first time around that I do agree with – Sakakiyama really does come across like a plucky drama protagonist sometimes! There’s an overwhelming spirit and a verve - a heartfeltness I guess, to how characters in an Obayashi movie behave, and in my first stolid reading of the short story I’d missed out on a lot of that that is in there (like when at first in the opening section I thought 榊山 was a mountain and not a character name… that meant I completely missed how it’s a description of him joyfully and intensely feeling like he’s become an adult at last, on a wind-swept cliff above the ocean).
Incidentally, there’s other stuff I missed the first time too that I’m definitely grateful to the movie for enlightening me on. A particular example is a part where (paraphrasing how it’s described) a character wraps another’s head in a bandage and applies some rouge to give them courage. When I first read that - I had no idea what to imagine… some kind of… mummy cosplay? The movie shows me clearly: it’s an imitation hachimaki with an improvised red sun. Makes a lot more sense that way! (although in my defense – like I said before… it’s only obliquely described).
In terms of major direction changes, the two main ones Obayashi makes both tie it more into his previous two movies: he emphasizes the setting much more, placing it in 唐津市 in Saga (and involving many locals and some kind of local government funding I think, like the previous two movies) where the original just has a line that goes “その町はまず架空の町であってもよい.” And Obayashi’s version uses the benefit of hindsight to make the movie much more explicitly about war, filling in lots of details and premonitions around that.
These alone I think make it definitely it’s own thing saying something separate in interesting ways. And there’s lots of smaller things filled in too, like the おば character has more things going on, or things briefly alluded to (like whatever was going on between Kira and his cousin) are made more explicit.
Because of how I was watching the movie though – I found it much more difficult to process the stuff unique to this movie than the stuff that’s the same in both, since I was using my knowledge of the book as a crutch to supplement my poor listening comprehension with the movie, and reciprocally to use my knowledge of the movie to supplement my poor reading comprehension with the book! So there’s a lot of elements that seemed interesting about the movie specifically that I would be curious to investigate more about interpretation-wise (like the director chair at the very end or what the heck was the blood metaphor doing or what was the deal with the scenes with the teacher outside of school or what was all that involving the transgender character that wikipedia tells me is a 娼婦 or is the lack of a second dog just to tidy up the plot a bit or something deeper somehow? or is that island like, a real place by that town that they included in the movie for that reason? or is the strange non-nudity effect used particularly on the women like, Obayashi making up in some way for his reputation for stripping young actresses in his movies, or is there something going on there related to Mina’s thing about being or not being seen nude or…? etc.) but it’s difficult to do that and I probably won’t because I’ve spent enough time and brainpower on this particular story in both forms anyway! (and there’s plenty about the story that’s still up in the air and worth contemplating too, for that matter). I confess my endurance was already flagging by the end of the movie. It could be interesting to rewatch someday if I ever find my listening comprehension becomes flawless (or I suppose I could watch the English subtitled version, but I’m still not to the point where I think I would have preferred that - and again, kinda done spending time on this story for now…)
One element I might explore a bit more though – is I have this in Japanese blu-ray format (bought a long time ago), which I believe has a making-of featurette on it I haven’t watched yet. I should give that a whirl some time. I mostly appreciate the edition for the booklet that comes with it, which provides a lot of nice context, about the making of and the town, including a fun illustrated diary from a local about visiting the set.
Anyway, this has nothing to do with Hanagatami, but there’s an essay in there from Obayashi before he died, that includes some recounting about when he directed commercials, and visited America, and those things led to his making his first feature, House. And I wanted to share this quote from him, talking about House, because I think it would be interesting to those who have seen it:
Anyhow – all in all these three movies of his were all very interesting in their own right! I think the first, この空の花 長岡花火物語, is the one I feel the most unambiguously positive about (and probably the one that delivers the most uncomplicatedly in House-ish Obayashi style), but 花筐 is definitely the one I found the most to be fascinated in, and I really appreciate it for the interesting time with that short story. I’d be very curious to hear anyone else’s thoughts on either the movie or the short story (I’d recommend both I think, although I don’t know that I would recommend exactly the order/process that I did – I wonder what someone would make of the movie without the story distracting them? I have no idea). (And 野のなななのか is cool too!).
Interesting can also be exhausting sometimes too though, and these were all an awful lot of listening to and kind of understanding a ton of complicated information in a foreign language! I wouldn’t mind if the next movies I watch are at least a touch less interesting in that sense for a while…