Hanagatami (2017) by Nobuhiko Obayashi

As the second world war looms, a group of teenagers are drawn together by friendships and romances that will come to define them. 17 year old Toshihiko (Shunsuke Kubozuka) becomes good friends with two of his classmates, the stoic and philosophical Kira (Keishi Nagatsuka) and the cool and inspiring Ukai (Shinnosuke Mitsushima). He admires both for their apparent lack of fear and mature outlook on life, which contrast sharply with Takashi’s own wide-eyed naivety. Meanwhile, Mina (Honoka Miki) is confined to her room through tuberculosis, looked after by her widowed sister-in-law, Takashi’s aunt (Takako Tokiwa). Her friends Akine (Hirona Yamazaki) and Chitose (Mugi Kadowaki) come to visit her in her room, attempting to keep up her spirits in the face of her terminal illness. As the war grows nearer they are forced to confront the various tragedies that await them.

Nobuhiko Obayashi’s (House) final work is a colourful, experimental, impressionist look at youth in the lead up to war. Based on a 1937 novella by his friend Kazuo Dan, Obayashi sat on the completed script for the film for forty years before finally deciding the time was right to direct. The film is set in Katsura and the production recruited many locals as staff and extras. The use of Katsura’s cultural festival makes the film historically significant as it is the first time this has been filmed.

“Hanagatami” is full of Obayashi’s inimitable style and bizarre directorial choices. The film is bookended with narration explaining that it is based on a book and throughout it often engenders a sense of dramatic alienation from the action. The early sequences in particular play with notions of time and place as characters step between scenes. The use of superimposed images, digital effects and often inexplicable decisions such as reversing camera angles during dialogue scenes all characterise Obayashi’s style. It is something akin to looking at a collage composed of various scraps of ideas, beautiful and bizarre imagery, that helps to build up a whole picture of theme, place and character. The film uses bold colours and harsh theatrical lighting and there is a sense of surrealism and fantasy woven through the more straightforward teenage drama plot. The performances of the leads, in particular Shunsuke Kubozuka as Toshihiko are theatrically exaggerated caricatures that chime well with the often chaotic style. All of the cast give great performances, including supporting roles from Takehiro Murata as an anti-war teacher and Takako Tokiwa as Takahashi’s aunt. The melodrama of the acting and direction is underscored by a soundtrack that repeats several songs and melodies, each of which come to represent a particular emotion. It is film that is abundant with metaphors, the white snake, the red rose petal becoming a droplet of blood, cherry blossom, the sea, but never dwells on these things or allows them to become the story. The unconventional style and parade of evocative imagery, poetry and philosophical musings are overwhelming at times, but Obayashi always draws us back to the protagonists and their personal journeys through a tale that is rich in universal meaning.

Obayashi has crafted a uniquely engaging and deeply emotional drama that blends traditional and experimental techniques. His style is provocative and will not appeal to everyone. It feels distinct and unfamiliar, with its art-house aesthetic, often almost cartoonish visuals distracting from the story. But if you let go of any preconceptions about how film should be made there is much to enjoy here. The film has a strong anti-war message, in particular noting the futility and horror of war. By showing us the carefree existences of the characters in the build up of hostilities we come to understand everything that is lost in war, innocence, friendships, and hope for the future. The film also gives us a prism through which to see the war, with each character representing a unique view on events and their own impression of what is happening. “Hanagatami” feels like a labour of love for the director and those working on the production. It encapsulates everything that was unique about Obayashi’s work, a timeless yet truly original story.

The Wind Rises (2013) by Hayao Miyazaki

Jiro Horikoshi is a  young man with a passion for aircraft, beginning with childhood dreams of designing his own flying machines. In his dreams he is visited by Caproni, an Italian aircraft designer, who shows him the delight of being an aircraft engineer. His childhood is also marked by a devastating earthquake, during which he meets a young girl, Nahoko Satomi, whom he meets again when they are adults. Jiro’s immense talents for design and love of aircraft land him a job at Mistubishi, creating several aircraft for them, including bombers and fighters. As the 1930’s wear on, Jiro is increasingly concerned about the connection between aircraft and warfare. He hopes that one day he will be able to create beautiful aircraft that will not be used as weapons.

Hayao Miyazaki’s love of aircraft can be seen all the way back with the flying machines of Nausicaa, and “The Wind Rises” allows him to fully explore his passion. Jiro Horikoshi is portrayed as a paradigm of good, whose only wish is to create beauty in an ugly world. Less fantastical than many Ghibli works, “The Wind Rises” plays like a wartime epic whose focus is not on the war, but on the people and aircraft that populated those times. There are numerous crowd scenes that give a genuine sense of society and community. People rushing by, packed together on trains, or scrambling in terror following an earthquake. These vignettes all show a society that is variously shifted by fate in unknown ways, and the idea that the community is a whole rather than a collection of individuals. Jiro’s own life is guided heavily by fate, in particular the wind. The first example of this comes when his hat is blown off and caught by Nahoko. The film shies away from an exploration of war as seen in traditional “war” films. The characters visit Germany in the 1930’s and there is a brief glimpse of the terror that was then engulfing that country, but for the most part discussions of Nazism and Japan’s own wartime exploits go unstated (the film does end before getting into the outbreak of war). We do see Jiro’s final creation, the famed Zero fighter aircraft, as a thing of tragic beauty, appreciating it with the designer’s eyes, while the voice-over explanation that none of these planes returned from conflict offers a grim counterpoint. Where the film triumphs is in its understated message of hope against adversity. Jiro is utterly committed to designing aircraft, and shows a dedication that few will ever be lucky enough to experience. His love for Nahoko is likewise a point of motivation for him. While the world seems to be falling apart through war and natural disaster, the film expresses the importance of fixing your sights on a passion and absolutely dedicating your life to it. An exceptional film that delivers on action and emotion.

Girls und Panzer der Film (2015)

This film throws us straight into the action with a battle between Ooarai Girl’s School tank club and an international school. The story presupposes that you are familiar with the characters and the world, following on from the “Girls und Panzer” series. For those who are not, the film takes place in a world where there is such a thing as a school tank club, in which teams take command of tanks in large scale battles (as opposed to the usual sports clubs). Following this opening battle, the film’s plot kicks into gear when the girl’s school (which happens to be on a large carrier ship) is taken away. They manage to retain their tanks and organize a tournament against a University team, the prize of which is to be the saving of their school.

The film is directed by Tsutomu Mizushima from a screenplay by Reiko Yoshida, carrying on from the original series. It is a premise that is simple yet endlessly entertaining and the film gives fans exactly what they want. The battles which bookend the film are long and show a great deal of creativity. A historical supervisor was involved and it is interesting to see the large variety of different tanks and tactics discussed. The script is packed with fun dialogue, replete with historical references and meaningful quotations alongside the quirky, off-beat humour of a high-school comedy drama. The characters are all voiced by the original actors and do a great job with their characterisations. Although this film does not reintroduce characters, rather assuming foreknowledge of the show, there are many great moments that show the camaraderie and affection between them. The music by Shiro Hamaguchi is a mix of soft melodies for the character moments and a bombastic action soundtrack during the battles.

Absolutely worth a watch for fans of the series; the film has a heartwarming message about friendship and co-operation. It is a meaningful lesson for the characters that could be said of any school activity. The fact that it is tank warfare offers an unusual element to the typical school drama of overcoming adversity to save the school. The historical parallels are never drawn too starkly, but it is interesting to note Japan’s relationship with war, particularly the Second World War. Almost all political notions are stripped from the story and the tanks and flags are decontextualised. The underlying humanity of the characters shines through and the positive aspects are emphasised. Following the battles, the girls always respectfully thank their opponents and ideas of honour and respect play a large part. Alongside this, virtues of quick-thinking, strategy, boldness, compassion and more are played out on the battlegrounds.

The Human Condition I: No Greater Love (1959)

Set in 1959, “No Greater Love” is the first part of Masaki Kobayashi’s epic trilogy “The Human Condition”. This first part follows Kaji (Tatsuya Nakadai), a young man who is sent out to Japanese-occupied Manchuria in 1943. His job is to oversee the iron-ore mining operations. He travels to China with his wife Michiko (Michiyo Aratama) and soon comes up against fierce resistance in his attempts to improve the conditions of the workers. Despite his colleague Okishima (So Yamamura) being sympathetic to his aims, the foremen of the mines, in particular Okazaki (Eitaro Ozawa), treat him with contempt believing him to be weak. When the military police send hundreds of prisoners to be put to work, Kaji is left in charge of the men and tries to help them despite their distrust of the Japanese and repeated escape attempts.

“The Human Condition” is based on a novel by Junpei Gomikawa with a screenplay by Zenzo Matsuyama and director Masaki Kobayashi. The story is epic in scale, but manages to keep its central plot personal. Beginning with Kaji and Michiko, they act as a focal point for the horrors that are happening around them. Kaji represents the viewer in his disbelief and disgust at what he finds in Manchuria. But despite his best efforts he is unable to stop many of the atrocities. This creates a poignant narrative of humanity’s failure to effectively tackle its most vile elements. Despite a large cast of characters the film never feels overly complex, even when it comes to the escape attempts which involve a number of players on both sides of the fence. Likewise, the framing creates clear distinctions between characters and numerous moments of tension as their ideologies come into contact. This is most clear when Kaji faces off against the military police officers.  The presence of the Japanese Imperial flag in the background in scenes where the characters actions may be immoral mark the film as a bold work. It is unsurprising that it had its critics on release due to an apparent anti-Japanese bias (in fact the film is staunchly anti-war, but this distinction may have gone unnoticed at the time). The production value is clearly high and the sets and number of extras create a sense of realism that helps the film achieve a greater impact. The brutality is largely only alluded to until the final third of the film. This creates a sense of tension and foreboding that something terrible will happen. Chuji Kinoshita provides a suitably epic score and the cinematography by Yoshio Miyajima is exceptional.

The film is a startling criticism of Japanese militarism and a rebuke to nationalist sympathies. It shows the Japanese occupation of Manchuria as cruel and the inhumane treatment of their prisoners who were put to work in the mines. Racism is rife, with the Japanese looking down on the Chinese locals. The inclusion of “comfort women” and enforced prostitution in the film also exposes a part of history that many would rather keep hidden. The women are given a strong voice through the character of an unwilling prostitute used by the Japanese forces and their captives. She states explicitly that they are as much prisoners as the men who are kept behind the barbed wire fences. They have no freedom to choose. The film shows the most despicable side of human nature, one that is cruel and discriminatory. However, it balances this by including the love story between her and one of the prisoners. There is a frail sense of hope that love can blossom even in adversity. In the end, Kaji feels that he has failed. Not because he participated in the violence, but because he allowed it to happen. Kaji’s pacifism and humanism are a constant cause of scorn for his fellow men, who believe this to be a sign of weakness. However, as the film progresses it becomes clear that he has chosen by far the more difficult path, to espouse peace and care for his fellow men when all around him are violent.

The Eternal Zero (2013)

After attending their grandmother’s funeral, two young adults discover that she was remarried following the death of her first husband, the biological father of their mother. The two set out, with the blessing of their step-grandfather, to find out the truth about their grandfather Miyabe (Junichi Okada). He had been a pilot in the war, flying one of the famed Zero fighter planes. Many of his contemporaries from that time describe him as a coward who was quick to run from battle. However, his grandson Kentaro (Haruma Miura) perseveres with the investigation that soon reveals a very different story. Far from being weak, Miyabe was one of the top pilots, but his belief in the sanctity of life and determination to save others put him at odds with his fellow pilots.

“The Eternal Zero” is based on the book by Naoki Hyakuta and directed by Takashi Yamazaki from a screenplay by Yamazaki and Tamio Hayashi. The story flits back and forth between the ‘present’ of 2004 and the war years. It is a structure that allows for much needed breaks in the narrative of Miyabe’s wartime experiences as well as giving the filmmakers a way of showing the impact of his actions two generations later. The wartimes segments are enlivened by some great aerial sequences, with Zeros and American fighters being recreated through CGI, that capture the ferocity and deadliness of the fighting. We see some of the most pivotal battles of the war, Midway and Guadal Canal, recreated, though the characters are fictional. There are only a couple of brief glimpses of bloody or violent scenes, but it is enough for the audience to understand the seriousness of what is at stake. Junichi Okada plays Miyabe with a calm air that shifts alarmingly in a later scene when he comes to understand the true horror of war. There are some great supporting performances from Mao Inoue as his young wife, Hirofumi Arai as his fellow pilot Kageura, an aggressive, gung-ho counterpoint to Miyabe, and Min Tanaka who plays his sombre older self. Shota Sometani also stars as a likeable young recruit who is helped by Miyabe. The film is rather longer than it needs to be at over two hours, and the acting at times overly dramatic. It suffers most when it attempts to steer the audience to a conclusion rather than allowing the story to stand for itself, though for the most part it is an engaging and emotional tale.

“The Eternal Zero” looks back at the war from the Japanese perspective with a mature eye, acknowledging the rampant nationalism and idolatry that led many to their deaths, and admitting that mistakes were made. A number of the characters comment on the fact that their way of thinking has changed with the passage of time. Some may dismiss this as a sly attempt to avoid taking responsibility for some of the atrocities committed during wartime, a way of distancing those who were there from these very different times and circumstances. However, the men who fought were young at the time, and fed imperial propaganda that indoctrinated a sense of superiority, and a do or die mentality into its military. The film’s central message is one of the value of life, not to throw it away needlessly, but to preserve it as our greatest asset. In contrast to his fellow pilots, Miyabe believes each life he can save, including his own, will be more valuable than those lost in pursuit of victory. It is a belief that is vindicated by many in later life who praise him for his stance, one that was difficult at the time. This is a powerful and important message to try to do the right thing even when those around you are pressuring you to conform to their own ideals.