Director: Nobuhiko Obayashi
Producers: Kyôko Ôbayashi, Terumichi Yamazaki
Cast: Keishi Nagatsuka, Mugi Kadowaki, Shinnosuke Mitsushima, Shunsuke Kubozuka, Tokio Emoto
Running Time: 169mins (2hrs 29mins)
Format: Blu-Ray, OnDemand
Licensed By: Third Window Films
Release Date: 6th July 2020
Within a year of Japan joining World War II, a sixteen year old Toshihiko is sent back to Japan from his home in Amsterdam to the small coastal town of Karatsu to live with his Aunt Keiko and ailing cousin Mina. As the war spreads across Europe, the importance of fighting for your home and giving your life for your country becomes inescapable in this small town. Even amongst the adolescent youths that Toshihiko befriends in school. Following the lives of these students, we see how each one of them fights their own battles. From one simply wanting to live a long life, another having a secret romance, a cripple who continuously fights against his own body and another who wants to do the honorable thing. All the while, we have Toshihiko who simply wants to belong amongst them and goes through the issue of underage smoking – just in order to be like his peers. Like all teenage based films, we also have stories of unrequited love, loss and forbidden relationships. Much happens in this two and a half hour film, that has to be seen to be believed. Don’t be expecting any happy endings however as this film delivers an honest look into the frightening times that many Japanese citizens faced during WWII.
The setting of this film gives an immersive experience, as just like the main character Toshihiko we also begin to adjust to the new surroundings of the secluded coastal town of Karatsu. This coastline has been an important port in Japan, as it stands as a stopover to Korea and China. A gateway to economic expansion in a time when Japan sought to become a modern industrialized nation. By late 1941 this policy caused direct confrontation with the United States and its allies and led to its defeat in World War II (1939–45). This film is set amongst these turbulent times and focuses on a group of youths as they become of age to be sent off to fight in the war. In amongst deciding how best to continue their education, make a career and settle down, they are instead forced to make a decision between going to fight in the war and take another’s life or end their own. Whilst at the same time, members of the female cast are fighting for their own lives, trying to find love, resisting their hormones & temptations and doing whatever they can just to live another day by not falling down the hole of depression. This film follows several storylines that all interlock throughout, whilst also giving believable performances and realistic scenarios with an artistic editing & filming style. Ultimately it is about how youth can be cut short and a generation lost when war begins.
Above we see three close female friends, one appears in a traditional kimono which reflects her humble background in a family run restaurant. In the middle we have the ill Mina, whose lungs are failing her. All she wishes is to live and revert back to a normal life again. She still holds the dreams of a teenage girl, to find romance and be carried away by the man she loves. We then have the third friend on the right, a quiet girl who has some abandonment and trust issues, but decides to hide behind a camera instead. At this point in time, all they are expected to do is serve their country by settling down, having children and maintaining the household. Whilst men of fighting age are encouraged to travel to the frontline to put their lives down for their homeland. Even amongst a small fishing village such as this, people are afraid of being ridiculed. Such as the local Doctor who travels on a foreign made bicycle, and a local teacher who reads Russian literature. It is ultimately this teenage generation, this group of six friends that suffer the most. As each comes faced with their own demise either in life or of a loss of innocence, a future they had not expected nor imagined.
There are some poignant moments in this film, such as the day after Toshihiko arrives at the village – Japan attacks Pearl Harbour and enters WWII. With the War now at their front door, schooling becomes meaningless to some students such as Ukai and Kira who walk out. With Toshihiko following suit in order to become friends with them, as he becomes fascinated by their actions. Even with the reality of War around them, teenage strives and love problems still remain at the forefront of this film. Even the disagreements and fights amongst Ukai and Kira give both depth and realism to their characters. Thus making the ending of this film even more tragic. For me, I think I need to watch this film several more times in order to fully appreciate it. As there seems to be more layers involved than I may be understanding. Especially surrounding the circumstances of the puppys’ death.
Every shot in this film is extravagant, from rising moons that bathe the coast and nearby islands in a brilliant moonlight never seen before in reality. To visuals that look as though they have been photoshopped to resemble a dream. All of these seem to just highlight the importance of adolescence and how the vast majority of these teenagers will never live through it all. With many lives cut short due to the enrollment to war and those who chose to die by their own hand instead of sacrificing their lives. This film is artistically well shot and produced, but I don’t know if the story is of the same level.
Bonus Features Include:
- Making Of
- Interview with Nobuhiko Obayashi
This film is based off the 1937 novel by Kazuo Dan, which explores the lives of a group of teenagers in Karatsu on the eve of war. Little did Kazuo-san know that WWII would begin shortly after in 1939. Making this work both relevant and striking to so many people following the War. This film adaptation has been a 40 year passion project for the late director Nobuhiko Obayashi. As he was born just a year after the novel was published and just before WWII began. He was recognised as a pioneer of Japanese experimental film during his career, with his 1977 horror film ‘House’ reaching Western audiences. He was also known for his anti-war stance embedded in his films, with ‘Hanagatami’ ending the trilogy he created of modern anti-war films. Now with Third Window Films releasing this title, perhaps they may be in a position to require the rest of Obayashi’s acclaimed work. It would be a final tribute to the filmmaker who passed away just months ago in April, after a long battle against lung cancer at the age of 82.
This film is probably best suited to those that have an interest in older Japanese film history, as there is much symbolism involved in this film that has flown over my head just in the first watch. That is not to say the film wasn’t enjoyable, it was a thought provoking watch. It is one of those titles that requires a live discussion about afterwards in order to better explore the themes. For now you can buy the physical release on Blu-Ray, as well as both renting or buying the digital version online through the link below.