Thursday, December 03, 2015

Obayashi at the Japan Society: The Discarnates

Hidemi Harada’s childhood years in Tokyo’s Asakusa neighborhood were pleasant while they lasted. The shops close early, but there are still enough fine sushi restaurants that a chef like his father can easily find a job, even though he has been dead since Harada was twelve. The middle-aged scriptwriter will enjoy a haunted summer, but the nature of the supernatural powers afoot is the big question in Nobuhiko Obayashi’s The Discarnates, which screens during the Japan Society’s Obayashi retrospective.

Harada is feeling a little alienated from people. He lives in one of two residential apartments in what is otherwise a commercial office building. He has just divorced his wife, only to learn his longtime producer and friend Ichiro Mamiya intends to go beyond torch-bearing and ask his ex out. Rather confused by the supposed betrayal, Harada subsequently rejects the champagne-fueled late night advances of his sole neighbor Kei Fujino.

Frankly, Harada is at risk of becoming of full blown misanthrope, albeit one who can write treacly sentimental television melodramas, until he impulsively returns to his old Asakusa neighbor. There he mysteriously encounters his father, looking just as he did when Harada last saw him. Naturally, the good natured Hidekichi invites Harada home, where his mother Fusako starts fixing him food. Harada cannot explain it, but he is not inclined to question the opportunity to feel like he is part of a family again. He also commences a relationship with Fujino, despite her hang-ups. Most notably, she refuses to let Harada see her naked chest, due to extensive scars. Frankly, Harada is emotionally happier and healthier than he can remember, but something seems to be depleting him physically.

Discarnates is the sort of film that makes you wonder why it is not more widely renowned. It is usually categorized as a horror film, but it really has a vibe similar to the more poignant Twilight Zone episodes, like A Stop at Willoughby and Kick the Can, which is high praise indeed. However, Obayashi still creates an ominous vibe of foreboding. Harada’s hugely atmospheric office/apartment building is particularly effective at setting the unsettling mood.

Tsurutarō Kataoka and Kumiko Akiyoshi are wonderfully warm and engaging as Harada’s parents, while Yûko Natori is powerfully seductive as Fujino. Harada is an awkward, mopey cold fish, but Morio Kazama somehow manages to convey a sense that he has more going on inside than meets the eye. His stiff persona also plays with and against the more outgoing Kataoka and Akiyoshi quite well.

There are serious stakes involved in Discarnates, but it leaves viewers feeling satisfied in a bittersweet kind of way, instead of wrung out by its thrills and chills. At times, Obayashi intentionally echoes the devices of Harada’s potboilers (Puccini soundtracks being his favorite cliché), but once again the auteur shows a knack for making potentially bizarre and artificial stylistic choices work rather well in practice. It is a rare paranormal drama that is distinguished by its heart and maturity, somewhat akin to Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Journey to the Shore. Very highly recommended, The Discarnates screens this Saturday (12/5) at the Japan Society in New York.