Tuesday, July 7, 2015

mondocurry corner: Seven Weeks @ Japan Cuts 2015

Those familiar with the name Nobuhiko Obayashi on account of his directing the 1977 film House (HASU), which has only just come to be revered as a cult classic midnight movie in recent years, may be surprised that his latest feature 7 Weeks is such a somber, meditative work. Let's not overlook the achievement of his directing a feature at the age of  76, period. Seven Weeks is an entirely different animal than the mirthfulness of that film that introduced most to the eccentric director’s work. It’s a lengthy ambitious drama, carrying the weight of history and the human condition throughout its discourse laden path. Starting out with the death of Mitsuo, an elderly antique dealer in a remote village of Japan’s northernmost Hokkaido prefecture, it follows the interactions among his varied family members, as they gather for a traditional period of mourning known as nanananoka, during which time the deceased are said to wander between the realms of the living and dead.

The sudden coming together of family members who rarely cross paths makes for some contentious exchanges, often keeping viewers just a bit off balance with the quickness of their verbal brushes. Slight awkwardness shifts to a more pointed unease when a woman from Mitsuo‘s past appears at the ceremony as well, with an equal or far greater connection to the deceased than that of his blood relatives. Between the discussions among those surviving Mitsuo and his internal burrowing into the past, a remarkable past pocked by harrowing struggle, heartbreak, and depression is painstakingly revealed.

There is a purposeful inclusion of a generational cross section at this convergence of family, allowing for the projection of multiple perspectives. Weathered cynicism, youthful idealism, and a sense of lacking identity among some in the middle all make their way into the characters’ voices. Indeed the losing of one’s way is yet another strong theme touched upon throughout the film. Such is the case with Mitsuo‘s grandson as he reacts to growing up with unconventional parental figures, or one of the family’s in-laws who expresses regrets over not fulfilling her heart’s true desires and seems to have given up on ever truly finding a sense of belonging. This and other questions that seem as though they are a part of the fabric of Japanese society permeate the film: Should characters stay where their roots are or move to a big metropolis? Sacrifice for their family, and country, or pursue one’s own satisfaction?

All the while there is another level of meaning interred in Mitsuo‘s memories. One that gets at the trials of artists who wish to capture the true nature of their subjects but are plagued by a sense of inadequacy that 2-dimensional mediums have at doing so. One feels that they are peering directly into the soul of Obayashi himself as he channels into the film this sense of artistic struggle after experiencing a lifetime of pursuing creative endeavors.

Like the title itself, which references a traditional Japanese custom likely to be unfamiliar to Western viewers, the film could easily serve as a seminar on Japanese culture. Society and history are both delved into, and connected to issues present in the current day. Conversations on Japan’s involvement in world war II drifts into discussions of the ramifications of reliance nuclear energy reliance in light of the March 11, 2011 earthquake crisis. The Mode of carrying out the narrative seems to reference traditional Japanese storytelling forms. Musical interludes that find a cast of characters ambling across the countryside playing traditional instruments recall other Japanese films of epic length, such as Heaven’s Story and The Tale Of Iya (both screened during previous JAPAN CUTS festivals).  

It’s very heady stuff and not something you go into and just casually breeze by. The unfolding of the tale can make it both a challenge and essential viewing in ways other than its lengthy runtime, which itself suggests the endurance of a substantial undertaking. The manner of speaking is largely aimed at getting to the core of these issues and does not often feel like natural conversation. Rather, philosophical questioning and societal admonishments are spoken solemnly, making scenes resemble that of Greek theater. Communications are often tinged with a touch of uncertainty over conversations – are characters speaking to or around each other? And the exchanges can often be maddeningly humdrum, making repeated references to local specialties they hope to dine on or a specific item of clothing worn during a chance meeting. Added to this is Mituso’s joining in on exchanges from his twixt world state, sometimes commenting on the exchanges of his still living family members, and other times seeming to engage some others, from the present or past.

While all this may sound far removed from the fun House cult movie fans have visited and revisted over the past few years, there are touches of Obyashi’s unique manner of producing visuals. At times characters seem to be imbued with a heavenly glow as they move through their quaint village’s pedestrian terrain. Things in the setting move in and out of focus, standing out against the background and calling the viewer’s attention to the fact that something is amiss. Animated effects are utilized most sharply as Mitsuo recalls the darkest periods of his youth during war time, as trippy animated sequences add a monstrous air to his recall.

Though there are some daunting aspects of the film, it will reward viewers up for the challenge with its insights. For those interested in learning about Japanese history and society by way of films, it is downright essential viewing.

Seven Weeks is screened as part of this year’s JAPAN CUTS film festival on Saturday, July 11 at the Japan Society in Manhattan. Visit their Japan Cuts page for and information and tickets.

Thank you SK for making much of my understanding of this film possible, as well as making all of my recent experiences that much more fulfilling.

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