The Third Window box set of filmmaker Nobuhiko Obayashi’s Anti-War Trilogy — which includes Casting Blossoms to the Sky, Seven Weeks and Hanagatami — is an exciting release for a few reasons. The most obvious is that it’s an affordable way to see more work by Obayashi, one of Japan’s most iconic auteurs who nonetheless has received little attention from Western audiences outside of cinephile circles. His most well-known release is probably House (Hausu), a film for which the meme “if you know, you know” is probably the best review one can provide. House is certainly Obayashi’s most famous film in the West and for good reason: It’s an iconic classic that uses Obayashi’s surrealist style to mix goofy comedy, a creepy ghost story and adolescent fears into an unforgettable experience. But I do suspect there’s some element of “Ah, look at Japan being weird” that makes House so popular, which may prevent most viewers from seeking out Obayashi’s other, more serious work. Enter this new set, available now, to represent an education in many ways.
Obayashi passed away from cancer in 2020. This set collects three of his final four films. Third Window previously released Hanagatami as a stand-alone disc, but this set pairs it with its sister films in a case that matches Obayashi’s signature visuals. Their anti-war themes feel particularly revelatory in today’s political climate.
Casting Blossoms to the Sky
The first film in the trilogy is 2012’s Casting Blossoms to the Sky, a unique blend of documentary and drama that quickly became one of my new favorites. Blossoms follows Reiko Endo (Yasuko Matsuyuki) as she visits Nagaoka in the aftermath of the 2011 Tōhoku Earthquake, an event so destructive and disruptive that, for those not from Japan, it can be fairly compared to 9/11 for an understanding of the lasting effect left on the nation’s social psyche. Reiko is there initially by the invitation of Kenichi Katayama (Masahiro Takashima), her ex-boyfriend and now a local teacher who wants Reiko to view a play performed by his students. While in Nagaoka, Reiko learns of a fireworks festival held there in World War II’s aftermath to restore hope to the devastated region.
Blossoms has no strong structure or plot. Parallels are drawn between the aftermath of the earth and the aftermath of WWII, and the audience spends time with Reiko as she learns more about Nagaoka’s history and with Kenichi as he helps his students ready their play. It has been written by Hana Motoki (Minami Inomata, incredibly skilled on unicycles), a mysterious new student with a connection to the wartime bombing that still almost moves me to tears when thinking about it. The genius of Blossoms is that it connects to the past with actors playing real-life people who still exist in the town and whose stories are accurately told onscreen.
Side stories and tangents pay off at the end of the film when the play dramatizes Nagaoka’s devasting wartime bombing. The weight of all the stories hits with a force beyond words. Accompanied by the wonderful score from Kosuke Yamashita and Joe Hiashi (whose main theme is probably the best thing I’ve heard all year), Blossoms just conjures so many emotions. Obayashi’s clever use of surrealist imagery allows him to depict wartime horror without a bombardment of graphic imagery. It’s effective and simply sublime. There’s a real human connection here that just makes you want to wish a better future into being. If that isn’t cinema, then I don’t know what is.
Obayashi’s second film in the trilogy, 2014’s Seven Weeks, is the weakest of the three but still serves as a potent humanist work. It follows a family after the death of its patriarch, Mitsuo Suzuki (Tōru Shinagawa), and weaves a complicated portrait of past, future and family connections. (The title refers to the amount of time the family must spend together after Mitsuo’s death per Buddhist funeral customs.) Set on location in Ashibetsu, Hokkaido (Japan’s northern island), Obayashi’s on-site shooting (in honour of a late colleague from there) looks fantastic and captures the region’s beauty. Seven Weeks lacks the whimsical emotionality of Casting Blossoms, but there’s something to the more character-focused drama here. Mitsuo’s story is by far the most powerful, following his life from World War II to present day and illuminating how that conflict scarred an entire generation.
Obayashi makes a powerful statement about the cruel brutality of war in how it irrevocably changes people’s lives and takes away the things that make us fundamentally human — love, creativity and art. The film also ponders what direction Japan could take after 2011’s devastating Tōhoku Earthquake. It hopes for a future in which Japan reckons with its past mistakes and moves forward in a positive manner.
“All you innocent boys will be taken and killed!” cries a character in Obayashi’s 2017 film, Hanagatami (Flower Basket). Of the trilogy, it’s the most strident and clear in its anti-war message and serves as a powerful conclusion to this cycle of films.
Based on the 1937 novel by Kazuo Dan, as well as Obayashi’s own childhood, the film follows Toshihiko Sakakiyama (Shunsuke Kubozuka) a 16-year-old who returns to his hometown in 1941 from his father’s military posting in Amsterdam to attend school. He moves in with his aunt, Keiko (Takako Tokiwa), and cousin, Mina (Honoka Yahagi), who is suffering from terminal tuberculosis. The film follows the family through its year together, with the growing dread of World War II as its specter slowly devours their little world.
The director’s personal conviction and passion are clearly on display here; Obayashi had wanted to make this film literally his whole career; he passed on the opportunity to instead direct House and had not since been able to make Hanagatami. Obayashi faced a call to action in the late 2010s when he was diagnosed with Stage IV cancer and given only a few months to live; he finally made this film and lived to see it well-received before his final film, Labyrinth of Cinema.
“This book is a memento of those young people who struggled to live in wartime,” the trailer announces, and Obayashi has done them credit by memorializing and commemorating them forever in this film. But he’s done more than that, he’s also memorialized all generations unfairly and cruelly stolen away by war. The film is a savage, powerful and moving indictment of conflict.
All three films’ transfers are great. Obayashi’s cinematography and preference for on-location shooting mixed with surrealist visuals make these some of the more unique contemporary films most audiences haven’t seen. The sound mixing is fantastic. The subtitles are never intrusive and well-done, particularly when there’s always a risk of additional onscreen text blocking an important image.
Extra features include interviews with Obayashi and several making-of documentaries. There will be nothing to really set extras fans on fire, but to me, the fact that these films received a release is reason enough alone to celebrate. Anything extra is just gravy, and the booklet essay by Aaron Gerow is a nice addition.