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Bound for the Fields, the Mountains, and the Seacoast
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by Jay Seaver

"An idyllic childhood in World War II Japan."
5 stars

Like many in the audience for Nobuhiko Obayashi's "Noyuki yamayuki umibe yuki" (the English title of "Bound for the Fields, the Mountains, and the Seacoast" was not on the print projected), all I had seen of the director's work was "House", which re-emerged as a cult favorite a few years back, and as a result I spent some time watching it through that prism - how is it like "House", how is it different? That's perhaps inevitable but unfair, as there is a fair chunk of time and work between the two, and this is in many ways a far more impressive work, less randomly strange but still eccentric, with a different sort of sting to its jokes.

This one is set during the Second World War, although the most obvious indicator of that in this particular town is that there aren't a whole lot of teenagers or young men around. Instead, kids like Sutaro Sudo (Yasufumi Hayashi), dressed in sailor's hat and always carrying binoculars and a book on monkey behavior, run around more or less unsupervised after school. His class has a new student, Sakae Ohsugi (Jun'ichiro Katagiri), a couple years older than the other kids and thus drawing the ire of the class's established bully Bon, the barber's son, leading Sudo to devise elaborate war games to prevent real violence from breaking out. The other boys also rapidly develop a crush on Sakae's pretty older half-sister O-Shouchan (Isako Washio), although she has an eye for raft-rider Yuta Hayami (Toshinori Omi). That pacifist may wind up in the Army anyway, even though O-Shouchan will soon have another reason for the pair to run away.

Those of us who primarily know Obayashi from House would not be surprised to connect the two films just by looking at them; though Bound for the Fields takes place in a less fanatical space and its color scheme is a bit more muted, it's still a vibrant world, more so than one might expect from a war-depleted time. It's a kid's-eye-view of things, though, and Sudo in particular still finds the world to be full of adventure and ready to be discovered. So the kids in his class wear distinctive outfits rather than uniforms, his parents are all wide, reassuring smiles - the father is even a doctor who can fix the sort of damage an active kids sustains right up - and his teacher is a goofball who is always running kind of funny. The last is probably because of an erection from the porn he keeps in his desk, but Sudo isn't thinking like that yet.

That's because he's a kid, and one of the more delightfully entertaining young protagonists a movie can have. Sudo manages the nifty trick of being sympathetic for tending to get into trouble through little fault of his own but also being mischievous enough to wiggle his way or of it, especially when it involves running around the town, cutting through buildings or stopping at a place that just so happens to hide him from his pursuers without the adults he encounters finding anything amiss. Part of this is Obayashi staging fun chases - he favors the sort which happen screen-by-screen, a series of shots where the time necessary for both Sudo and, say, Bon and his friends to enter and exit in sequence is just long enough to set up and pay off a gag - and part of it is that Yasufumi Hayashi is a lot of fun in the role, pulling off confidence without cockiness or the smugness child characters who wind up leading can often have.

As impressive as it is in Sudo, the way the whole lot of kids are likable even when misbehaving is kind of impressive. It's a bit odd including O-Souchan in that list because for as much as she's described as being fourteen years old in the dialogue, she comes across as older (the ickier bits of how this plays out are probably half intended to shock and half 2010s US/1940s Japan cultural differences); in any case, Isako Washio is impressive as the teenager who is more precariously balanced between youthful innocence and harsh adult reality. She never seems to be talking down to the kids but is also acutely aware of the more adult situations her immediate future holds, whether chosen by her or someone else. Even in the sillier moments, there's grace to her portrayal. It's the opposite of what Jun'ichiro Katagiri does as Sakae; that kid always seems to want to punch his problems, and Katagiri plays him as tragically not oblivious, all too aware that he's not as clever (or well-positioned) as Sudo. He's stoic about what he feels he must accept and angry about the rest, and Katagiri is seldom off in terms of how much of each a situation requires.

Obayashi takes these young folks and puts them in situations that slowly change in tone, expanding the kids' view into the adult world and creating a sharper contrast. There's an almost pure innocence at play during the first act, but even without the intrusion of adults, tons get darker in the middle even as Sudo seems to instinctively try and bleed the boys' Excess aggression off, until things finally climax in a final act that is sweet and hilarious but so almost certainly doomed that the villains of the piece are laughing almost wistfully during it. The loss of innocence culminates with the image shifting to black and white - these guys may still be kids for now, but something has changed for good (at least on the print shown; in a post-film Q&A, Obayashi mentioned all-color and all-B&W versions).

It's a surprisingly powerful final impact, more focused and dedicated to a concrete story than one might expect of the man who made "House" or a number of commercial and advertising shorts. And yet, the shared DNA is hard to deny, making this something definitely worth watching for folks who liked "House" for more than just its weirdness.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=29903&reviewer=371
originally posted: 11/29/15 15:21:58
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