Hiroyasu Ishida’s new animated film, about a group of elementary school-aged kids trapped on an apartment building floating in the ocean, captures the nostalgia of friends and communities we once loved before moving on in our separate lives; now streaming on Netflix.
When 33-year-old director Hiroyasu Ishida was offered the chance to produce his second feature-length film, the opportunity came with complete freedom to create whatever he wanted.
So, naturally, he chose a story about a group of elementary school-aged kids trapped on a floating apartment complex in the middle of the ocean. Because of course.
“There were other ideas and concepts that we did explore, but I arrived at this one because it’s something that you would never think of as possible or plausible,” says Ishida, known for his first feature, the award-winning Penguin Highway. “Plus, it is that age range that I'm drawn to for characters because that was when I, as a young boy, had the most fun in my life.”
Drifting Home, releasing on Netflix today, September 16, is produced by A Whisker Away’s Studio Colorido Co. and follows the story of sixth graders Kosuke and Natsume who, with their friends, sneak into an old and dilapidated public housing complex, which used to be where Kosuke and Natsume lived. The two friends were raised like siblings but then drifted apart after their families moved to newer homes.
When Natsume and Kosuke get into a fight on the roof of their old home, they suddenly find themselves caught in a torrential downpour. As the storm subsides, the group of kids discover the apartment, and they along with it, are adrift at sea.
It was an early sketch of that scene which most intrigued Drifting Home’s producer Hibiki Saito.
“There was this initial image board that the director provided us that was just one picture, one sketch, of this apartment building drifting along the ocean,” remembers Saito. “I thought that was something that we could definitely expand upon. The staff and the crew I had on board also felt the same way, so we just went along with it.”
But while a massive, crumbling city apartment bobbing in the middle of a vast blue ocean is certainly arresting and unique, the heart of the film lies within the inner constructs of this particular apartment.
“There are various kinds of Danchi apartment buildings, but the one that is featured in this film comes from a particular era, just after World War II had ended in Japan,” explains Ishida. “So, these apartment buildings are more than 50 years old and were sprouting up all over the nation, built out of the ruins of the war because there wasn't enough housing to accommodate everybody in the country. One characteristic of the Danchi of this era is that the rooms are interconnected, so you can go from one room to another without going out into the hallway.”
The director continues, “They were also vertically connected, so that a person from the first floor had a lot of communication with someone living on the second floor.”
The way that these Danchi complexes were built comes from a concept used in the Edo period, where single-story apartment-like homes had many people from the community living in one complex, and each residential quarter was connected.
“So, everybody was living next to each other, and you could move from one room, or one quarter, to another and it was very easy to form a community among the residents who were living in these buildings,” says Ishida. “The Danchi apartment buildings follow that tradition in that the rooms are connected and there was this very strong sense of community between the tenants.”
In the film, Natsume is taken under the wing of Yasuji, Kosuke’s grandfather who lives in a Danchi apartment one floor below Kousuke and his parents. In both the present-day sequences of the film and in the flashbacks, Natsume and Kosuke are frequently running around the apartment, in and out of rooms, back and forth between multiple floors, traversing the connecting routes as if they were secret tunnels of a fort the kids built themselves. The apartment is as much their playground as it is a living space.
Getting the intricacies of the Danchi apartment was so important to Ishida that the director had a model made to assist with the design and animation.
“There's a piece of dialogue in the film where they talk about how, with the character of Natsume, whenever she was in emotional trouble, she would take herself from the fourth floor to the fifth floor, and vice versa, to console herself,” notes Ishida. “This sense of vertical movement is something that contemporary apartment complexes in Japan don't have. But, at the same time, this type of apartment complex is very quintessentially Japanese and very symbolic of a specific era in Japan. So, I do want it to bring a sense of cultural discovery to those who watch this film.”
But within this historically specific setting, Ishida wanted to capture a more universal message, based in the nostalgia for the places we have called home. The film goes on to reveal Natsume’s distressing family history and how, after she was sent to live with Yasuji and Kosuke, she began to view the old, run-down apartment as her safe haven and salvation, which is why she is more than reluctant to let it go and move on. It’s a concept with which both director Ishida and producer Saito are familiar.
“I actually grew up in one such Danchi apartment building and, when I visited my family recently, they had moved their home and now they live in a newer building,” says Saito. “I am not someone who usually has a sense of nostalgia toward buildings, but I did feel a wave of sentimentality wash over me at that moment of knowing my family had moved. Looking at this film that we've made, it has made me realize that this is an experience that everyone else must have as well.”
For Ishida, every move has come with more than a little reminiscence.
“I moved a couple of times between my childhood and college years and, of course, for the houses or apartments where I lived longer, there's a sense of attachment to these places,” he says. “The first house that I lived in was not a Danchi apartment, but it was much older with a history of about 90 years. I lived there from when I was very little up until my high school years and, when I would go back, I would feel that sense of sentimentality.
He continues, “After that, I moved to Kyoto to attend college and, after spending five years in Kyoto, it became like a second home. Now I live in Tokyo, where I actually live in a Danchi apartment. I’m sure I’ll feel the same way when I have to leave that building.”
However, as Drifting Home goes on to reveal, it’s not merely the physical location of a home that fosters the fond memories, but the community that was built within the building itself, the friendships that were made, and the bonds that will outlast any brick and mortar. In this way, a Danchi apartment, a home that grows community effortlessly, is the perfect location for a film about childhood nostalgia.
“We’re telling the story about a place – this Danchi apartment – and about growing up in a certain place, in a certain home, and having to say goodbye to that place and how one resolves that sadness or nostalgia,” says Ishida. “The truth is, a place is never eternal. They come and go, and then we also have to come and go or leave a place. And as we, as people, have to go forward in our lives, it is the connection with people around us that really helps us transition through these changes.”
Saito adds, “And I think this is a kind of sensibility that is not only Japanese, but very universal.”
As for the reason behind having the apartment adrift in the ocean? Viewers will have to watch the film to get the answer.