Most moviegoers got their first impression of Japanese director Nobuhiko Obayashi from his 1977 horror movie Hausu, rereleased to cult acclaim in 2009. Its eye-popping scenes included the sight of disembodied fingers playing the piano and a severed head biting a schoolgirl’s derriere. It was far from the only time the director put sailor-suited schoolgirls in dangerous situations, and one may scratch their head at such vivid fixations. But what if these unforgettable and somewhat uncomfortable images stemmed from post-war trauma? The rerelease of Obayashi’s ambitious War Trilogy, spanning nearly nine hours, reveals the adolescent anxiety at the heart of Obayashi’s audacious cinema. Originally released between 2012 and 2017, these three titles each tap the same fevered imagination that fueled Hausu, but at the same time they tackle a long-standing personal concern for a man born at the crucial juncture of 1938: in one way or another, his work faced the horrors of World War II.

The 2012 Casting Blossoms to the Sky is the densest of these works, weaving layers of history in a 160-minute essay inspired by the residents of Nagaoka, where an annual fireworks festival commemorates the victims of a U.S.-led air raid that devasted the city on August 1, 1945, just days before the more infamous bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The movie is framed by journalist Reiko Endo (Yasuko Matsuyuki), who travels to the city in part to reconnect with an old boyfriend who’s directing a play for the festival, with the help of a mysterious schoolgirl who’s frequently seen riding a unicycle.

Blossoms conveys volumes of information in a short time, ranging from the personal to the national, and at the same time navigating a complicated dynamic among the fictional characters. So the recurring sight of schoolgirls riding unicycles throughout the fractured timeline may seem to be a flash of whimsy that emerged directly from Obayashi‘s brain; but the unicycle in fact turns out to be based on a real memory of the time. That detail makes one wonder what else in Obayashi’s psychedelic oeuvre was in fact based on reality.

Despite clocking in at 160 minutes (it’s still the shortest running time in the trilogy), most of that time passes in a whirlwind, and it can be overwhelming as Obayashi uses all the visual tools at his disposal, culminating in a festival recreation that uses a combination of animation and live action to depict the horrors of war; that visual combination may well sound familiar to fans of Hausu, and Blossoms explores a similarly demonic landscape, but to a very different end. Or are they so different?

The second title in the trilogy, Seven Weeks (2014) is more visually conventional, chronicling several generations in the family of doctor and artist Mitsuo Suzuki (Toru Shinagawa), who dies at the age of 92 on March 11, 2013, at 2:46 pm. The time of death, seen on the cracked dial of Suzuki’s wrist-watch, becomes a recurring motif, as Obayashi sends us back and forth in time to examine the domestic trials and wartime atrocities the family lived through since the war. The 171-minute film unspools like an unusual soap opera—the title refers to the seven weeks of mourning that the family holds for its patriarch. The ensemble cast vaguely recalling late-career Alain Resnais, but with Obayashi’s distinct eye revealing itself in more subtle ways. For instance, the director as always is fond of green screen effects, and in scenes of a woman bicycling through snowy landscapes the seams are obvious. But when the easy-going cyclist starts to travel on real scenery and not a soundstage, these ordinary shots become more poignant, a reminder that, although this is cinema, Obayashi is no longer trafficking in artifice but in reality, full of natural beauty as well as man-made horror.

Obayashi died last year at the age of 82; when he was 80, he was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer and told he had just six months to live. Driven by that death sentence, Obayashi made what he thought would be his final film, an adaptation of a 1937 novel by Kazuo Dan that he’d wanted to bring to the screen even before he made Hausu. Hanagatami is centered on 17-year-old Toshihiko Sakakiyama (Shunsuke Kubozuka), who in 1941 has arrived in the town of Karatsu to pursue his studies. Toshihiko’s life revolves around a handful of fellow youth that include his cousin Mina (Honoka Miki), a beautiful young girl who suffers from tuberculosis; the older student Kira (Keishi Nagatsuka),a cruel philosopher who has been ill since birth; and the athletic Ukai (Shinnosuke Mitsushima), fond of taking moonlit swim in the sea.

The specter of war hangs over the proceedings, and for nearly three hours, we watch as Toshihiko and his friends handle the normal problems of young adulthood as well as the more world-changing issues. Yet this story of youth has the unmistakable perspective of an elder looking back and pondering his mistakes. The naïve Toshihiko spends much of the film in awe of Kira and Ukai, and, seeing them with cigarettes, thinking that he should smoke too. It’s a sedate narrative as far as Obayashi goes, and the film’s three acts are peppered with old fashioned screen wipes that recall silent era films. Still, layered, composite compositions heighten the sense of hyper-reality, marked with one of Obayashi’s signature painted sunset backdrops. Adding to this artifice are stylized acting performances—Natgatsuka operates with a permanent scowl, his cynicism evident before he speaks a word, and Kubozuka, like most of his classmates, is clearly years older than the teenager he depicts. At the same time, Hanagatami spends the most time developing its characters; one loses track of the generations and names in Seven Weeks, but the more concentrated core in this near-swansong means that we get to know them better are become more involved in their mostly tragic fates.

Obayashi’s doctors turned out to be wrong; he would live long enough to make one more film, the career-summing Labyrinth of Cinema, released in 2019 and sharing enough themes with the War Trilogy to form the closing chapter in an unofficial tetralogy. Looking back on his past, he also looked to the future; the distinct window frame that was the focal point of Mina’s room in Hanagatami became the windshield of a spaceship in Labyrinth. But Obayashi’s War Trilogy trilogy ends on a sober note of regret and farewell. Although his subject is youth, these are autumnal works, a spirited eye tempered with the wisdom of a long life. The project was spurred by the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011, and, as he did throughout his career, the director faced destruction square in the eye—and created a rich world from its ashes.

Obayashi tackled the horrors of World War II in three sprawling, highly stylized dramas that are unmistakably the work of an audacious visual master.
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Autumnal Vision
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