Even though most people in the US know Nobuhiko Obayashi for his 1977 cult classic House (Hausu), he’s remained a prolific filmmaker in Japan. His body of work is varied, including the body swap comedy Exchange Students and the Ozu-esque Bound for the Fields, the Mountains, and the Seacoast. He can’t be pinned down to one genre or style, finding ways to mix his background in experimental cinema with his love of Japanese film history.
During a public conversation with Obayashi at The Japan Society, Yale film studies professor Aaron Gerow noted that the 77-year-old director belongs to a generation of filmmakers who came of age after the end of World War II. Growing up predominantly in the post-war period meant that Obayashi saw the change in Japanese culture as it came to terms with the atrocities of WWII, the realities of the atomic age, and the growing influence of the west.
These concerns are at the center of Seven Weeks, which was released in Japan in 2014. Using the death of an old man as a starting point, Obayashi meditates on what it means to live, as well as the challenges that face Japanese society in the 21st century.
[Seven Weeks screens at The Japan Society on Sunday, November 29 at 7:00pm as part of their Nobuhiko Obayashi retrospective. For tickets and a full schedule, visit japansociety.org.]
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Seven Weeks (野のなななのか, Nononanananoka)
Director: Nobuhiko Obayashi
Release Date: March 2, 2014 (Japan)
There’s a line in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman that goes, “If you keep [stories] going long enough, they always end in death.” Ironically, death is also a great place to start a story. When a friend or relative passes away, loved ones gather to mourn and remember, and in the process they find something useful for the future. Seven Weeks opens on a similar note, commemorating the real-life passing of a director before saying that each time someone dies, someone else is born to take his or her place. So stories keep going, and there’s death, but it’s not necessarily the end; it’s more like a continuing historical process.
That’s the broad shape of Seven Weeks. A family’s 92-year-old patriarch, Dr. Suzuki Mitsuo (Shinagawa Toru), passes away, and the film proceeds to explore the town he lives in, his secret past during WWII, and the lives of his surviving family and friends. The film is set in Ashibetsu, a mining town whose population has dwindled as reliance on coal has declined. The characters in the film often have rapid, funny exchanges with one another, especially in the first hour, which plays out with the speed of a screwball comedy. It’s not just Mitsuo’s surviving family members doing the talking. The ghost of Mitsuo also has a chance to comment on his own life and death, which he does at length.
Even though I’m only mildly familiar with the history and politics of post-war Japan, the setting is essential for Obayashi’s concerns, which are at once distinctly Japanese and yet also universal. So many of the anxieties of every generation are rooted in the inability to account for a world that’s constantly changing. Moving from coal power, Japan settled on nuclear energy, and yet with nuclear power comes a reminder of the atomic bomb and, more recently, the 2011 nuclear disaster in Fukushima. What next, where to go, what to do? When Mitsuo’s family brings these concerns up, Seven Weeks feels like a message movie about green energy, albeit a sincere one.
The local economy in Ashibetsu isn’t what it used to be and may continue to decline, and yet Obayashi lovingly photographs the rural landscape, always finding beauty and grace in the hillsides. It’s as if somewhere in the past, in the very soil of this place, there’s an answer, or at least a chance for beautiful reflection that can inspire worthwhile solutions. I sensed a few nods to Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries, which is apt.
Similar concerns of place and tradition come from a few of Mitsuo’s drunk contemporaries, who talk about the loss of a traditional Japanese culture, the west exerting more cultural influence on the country and its youth in the post-war period. Mitsuo’s own struggles with the past suggest an unwillingness to let go, haunted by a poem and the memory of a woman. His clinic even has an adjoining local history museum, which suggests different ways and reasons why we hold on to events from our past.
Seven Weeks clocks in at nearly three hours. Some long films feel much shorter, but Seven Weeks feels like it’s three hours. That’s not really a bad thing, but anyone expecting the movie to be brisk will be disappointed.
Anyone expecting an experience like Hausu will be especially disappointed. Seven Weeks contains a few flashes of anarchic experimentation like Hausu, but it’s mostly a grounded affair given the subject matter. The characters are quirky, but mostly only just. There’s a monk who plucks and admires his comically large ear hair, which has a nice payoff in a scene in which one of Mitsuo’s grandsons starting picking his own nose hair. A few uses of blue screen and green screen to convey the passing of time and the change in the seasons are jarring since they look spotty, but for the most part there’s a slow, deliberate confidence in much of Seven Weeks that reveals an old director in complete control of his material.
There’s an overture played throughout Seven Weeks by a group of marching ghosts. The spectral musicians are motif I’ve seen in a few other Japanese movies, though I’m still never quite sure what to make of them. The melody they play is rather charming, and the slow yet beautiful dazzle of the tune seems mirrored in the pace of the film. The ghosts walk the landscape and play their song, and they’re a calming presence in Seven Weeks. The whole film has a calming and contemplative presence, in fact, like a grandfather telling a story. Sometimes we drift in and out when listening to the tale, but there are details and textures we recall vividly, and it’s just nice to hear that voice.