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Hanagatami
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by Jay Seaver

"If this is farewell, it's a fittingly beautiful and strange one."
3 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2018 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: When "Hanagatami" starts making the next phases of its rounds - the film societies and art-house tours before the small specialty label gives it a home video or streaming release - take note of its length, and fortify yourself properly. As much as there is plenty striking in this intended farewell work by the director of "House", and plenty to discuss, it is very much the sort of film that had festival-goers who saw it nodding to each afterward and agreeing that, whatever else it was, it was definitely 159 minutes long.

It follows the adventures of teenager Toshihiko Sakakiyama (Shunsuke Kubozuka) in a Japanese coastal town during the 1930s, before the United States had entered the war and it was mostly a somewhat distant concern. He has just arrived from Amsterdam, where his parents remain, and only really knows Mina Ema (Honoka Yahagi), a sickly girl whom it has been assumed he would marry since they were young. At school, he is making new acquaintances - class clown Aso (Tokio Emoto), monk-like Kira (Keishi Nagatsuka), and ready-to-enlist Ukai (Shinnosuke Mitsushima) - and it turns out that Mina's friends AKine (Hirona Yamazaki) and Chitose (Mugi Kadowaki) know the boys as well. And, indeed, there may be other darker forces in this quiet town besides the fact that most adult men are away at war.

Hanagatami is every bit as gorgeous as you might expect from Nobuhiko Obayashi, the director of not just House but a number of less-obviously insane but painterly productions he has made since - most notably, Bound for the Fields, the Mountains, and the Seacoast, another WWII-set nostalgia piece. There's not a shot in this picture that isn't exquisite, and he's long proven himself quite adept at using both location and obviously-constructed rooms to create settings that feel simultaneously genuine and dreamlike. He's careful, here, not to drown the viewer in fond nostalgia, but rather to hint at how Toshihiko and Mina see the world from a bit of an remove. There is no special innocence or clarity here, but there is beauty as well as horror, even if there is more of the latter than initially expected.

It's horrors that are taken enough for granted that there isn't actually a whole lot of story to stretch out over the film's length (fans who mainly know Obayashi from his horror work may be disappointed that the gothic mansions, Nosferatu Symphony, and pale/anemic heroine do not lead to a full-on vampire story), with more observing than acting. Still, it's not really boring, as Obayashi is never content to let the grass grow under his feet. The teenage characters are busy, right up to the point of being frantic, so there's no chance of complaining that nothing is really happening. Instead, the film becomes a sort of blur, not quite exhausting, but with no time to consider what's going on.

The big negative, then, is that this is a rather miserable cast of characters to follow. Toshihiko in particular seems especially clueless, possessed of the sort of privileged ignorance one wants shattered as soon as possible but which proves annoyingly resilient. Star Shunsuke Kubozuka is also far too old for the part, feeling like a parody of youthful innocence rather than anything sincere, but there's never an indication that Obayashi has satirical knives out for the nostalgia genre. The way the whole group plays off each other in the lead-up to Pearl Harbor is random at best, downright abusive at worst. There's value in finding the dark underbelly to a country sinking deeper into war, and perhaps that is where Obayashi is headed - that there was a sickness in Japan that extended all the way down to the common people - but there's still too much sympathy, too much willingness to see it as coming from somewhere else.

This equivocation leads up to an ending that doesn't pull much out of its surreal nature to make the audience feel anything beyond the most obligatory tragedy until there's been time to look back and feel it as a bit more than a weight. If this is Obayashi's swan song (he tends to get a second wind after finishing a farewell), it's a fitting one - dreamy, strange, beautiful, but more than a bit of a mess - and certainly of interest to those with an interest in his career beyond his best-known cult film.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=32426&reviewer=371
originally posted: 09/19/18 11:02:31
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2018 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2018 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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