Weaving the life of a 92-year-old doctor into the history of a small Hokkaido city, Nobuhiko Obayashi’s profound if overly involved “Seven Weeks” addresses Japan’s wartime responsibility, her present nuclear crisis and the heartaches of youth and love. Though the septuagenarian helmer-scribe touches on grave, harrowing matters, the narrative traverses past and present with the same poetic whimsy as his time-traveling youth romances, a subgenre of which he was a local pioneer. Since the 171-minute saga demands focused attention and wholehearted commitment to its humanist cause, it has unfortunately fallen through the cracks between mainstream and arthouse audiences.
Although best known among Western genre buffs for his cult horror-thriller “House,” Obayashi also made what is considered a prototype of the youth romantic fantasy and the hometown movie (a staple of Japanese cinema) with his “Onomichi Trilogy” (“Exchange Students,” “The Girl Who Leapt Through Time” and “Lonely Heart”). Adapted from a story by Koji Hasegawa, “Seven Weeks” is a crowd-funded independent project that reconfigures and politicizes the director’s usual concerns in a portrait of what he calls “Guernica in moving images.” In particular, the use of surreal elements and multiple voiceovers makes it a companion piece to his “Casting Blossoms to the Sky” (2012), but where that film drew parallels between Fukushima’s nuclear fallout and America’s intense bombing of Niigata during WWII, “Seven Weeks” traces the history of a Russo-Japanese border town to illustrate the fluidity of national boundaries and decry the folly of territorial disputes.
When retired doctor Mitsuo Suzuki (Toru Shinagawa) passes away at the ripe old age of 92, his sister Eiko (Tokie Hidari); his grandchildren Fuyuki (Takehiro Murata), Haruhiko (Yutaka Matsuhige), Akito (Shunsuke Kubozuka), Kanna (Saki Terashima); and his great-granddaughter Kasane (Hirona Yamazaki) gather from near and far at their hometown, Ashibetsu, to arrange for his “nanana no ka” — the Buddhist ritual of holding memorials every seven days for 49 days after a person’s death. Enter mysterious beauty Nobuko Shimizu (Takako Tokiwa, “20th Century Boys”), a former nurse at Mitsuo’s clinic, who holds the key that will unlock the secrets of his past.
The film’s ambitious structure is initially obscured by a galumphing start, as a dozen members of the Suzuki clan either try to talk at the same time, or drone on in monologues that only partially fill in their weblike connections. To complicate matters, present-day activities overlap with stylized scenes of Mitsuo talking to the camera, expounding on his anti-war sentiments or reminiscing about his first love.
However, after the difficult first hour, the narrative ellipses give way to a fascinating account of Ashibetsu’s history as an open-pit mining town. Kasane bumps into her uncle Akito and his g.f. Ryoko (Natsuki Harada) while volunteering for an excavation project, which unearths the city’s shameful practice of using Korean slave labor throughout the 1930s and ’40s. A scene of an elderly Korean woman mourning her son’s death in an explosion reps a damning acknowledgment of a crime that is still being whitewashed by certain Japanese politicians.
Mitsuo’s recollections of his youth become a reflection of Japan’s political and cultural milieu in the ’40s. The young Mitsuo (Shusaku Uchida) becomes entangled in a menage a trois with his artist friend Ono (Takao Ito) and Ona’s fiancee, Ayano (Yumi Adachi), leading him on a mission to Sakhalin, which was then under Japanese sovereignty and named Karafuto. A blood-soaked history comes back to haunt Mitsuo in the form of an oil painting that Nobuko poses for, gradually becoming a disturbing indictment of war.
The film is heavy with such metaphors of the past, which serve to shed light on the present. Mitsuo’s death at 2:45 p.m. (the same time as the Tohoku earthquake) symbolizes the passing away of Old Japan and the period of spiritual limbo to which the nation is condemned before its self-renewal. The episode in Sakhalin evokes war as an ongoing mental state, and suggests a parallel between Japan’s aggression during WWII and her current re-militarization. The enormity of Obayashi’s subject and his urge to provide substantial historical background for Ashibetsu at times almost crush the wispy human drama, especially when characters are made to recite poems or dialogue that merely check off facts and figures. Nevertheless, the final scenes, bidding the new generation to go on a journey, strikes a brave and hopeful note.
As the agent through which Obayashi channels his historical vision, Shinagawa exudes a pensive, philosophical aura, and limns his intimacy with Tokiwa’s Nobuko with intriguing ambiguity. Tokiwa, a TV drama goddess of the ’90s, maintains a glacial poise in keeping with her mysterious and symbolic role, while Adachi, a former teen idol, is both doll-like and smoldering as Shinagawa’s muse.
The supporting characters all have their checkered stories — like Haruhiko, whose employment by a nuclear plant weighs heavily on his psyche, or Kanna, who timorously pursues her vocation as guardian of Mitsuo’s spiritual legacy. Although not all of them become fully formed personalities, they collectively embody the search for answers in a confused world.
Tech credits are fine overall, but the art direction, especially set and costume design in the period scenes, is hampered by the tight budget. Editing by Obayashi and Hisaki Sanbongi (who also served as d.p.) could have imposed a clearer narrative structure, but instead allows static, wordy scenes to run too long. Kousuke Yamashita’s orotund score works best in magical-realist musical interludes in which members of the cult band Pascals walk in procession through four seasons of breathtaking natural scenery.