Nobuhiko Obayashi was a director often dismissed as someone whose works are “ultimately less than meets the eye.” 1The purpose of this piece is to argue otherwise. On the contrary, Obayashi’s experimental aesthetics often served to illuminate the recurring themes of his works. They are frequently concerned with childhood, nostalgia, memories, reflexivity, the Second World War in Japan, innocence, and the destruction of innocence. Each of his films, even the failures, contains a sense of discovery, with his trademark opening card ‘A Movie’ being both pointed and wonderfully open. When he died in 2020, he left an extensive, restless, and utterly singular body of work, built over a career spanning more than 60 years, traversing multiple genres and media. He directed roughly 43 features, 10 shorts, and, by his own estimate, 2000 television commercials. Despite such eclecticism, each of his works remains, in some form, distinctly an ‘Obayashi’ film. His death has given closure to his vast videography, and one can now stand back and appreciate the shape of his career, which is something I will aim to outline and explore in this Great Directors piece.
Nobuhiko Obayashi was born in 1938 in Onomichi, a port city in the Hiroshima prefecture. His father was a doctor, his mother a professor of tea ceremonies. As part of the “particular generation born between the years 1935-1940”,2 Obayashi’s early childhood was spent against the backdrop of WWII. Like many from this generation, he was too young to grasp fully the complexities of war, yet old enough to be able to remember its immense consequences. This context would go on to greatly inform much of his work, with his films often exploring innocence and growth amidst an approaching destructive force of some sort- one that is usually acknowledged, but only ever vaguely understood by his characters.
Creating his own hand-made animation films from the age of six, he displayed a natural propensity for the medium early on. This creativity would carry over to his time in university, where he would make his first short film, E no Naka no Shoujo (The Girl in the Picture), in 1958. As Paul Roquet notes, even from his earliest works, there is a “fervent impulse towards melodrama of the most robust and romantic sort”.3 Though its heavy reliance on intertitles makes The Girl in the Picture the most conventional of his early shorts, its story, focusing on the evanescence of young love, already establishes what would soon become Obayashi’s signature brand of romantic melancholy. His next shorts, made after he dropped out of university, would be more adventurous: Dandanko (1960), Mokuyoubi (Thursday, 1961), and Katami (Remembrance, 1962). Thursday is the most formally radical of the three, with its frequent jump-cuts and playful deconstruction of cinematic conventions clearly influenced by the French New Wave movement of the time, with Obayashi having been particularly vocal in later interviews about the influence of Jean-Luc Godard’s A bout de souffle (Breathless, 1960).4 In-between these works of fiction, he would also find the time to make Nakasendo (1961), a travelogue of the Japanese countryside. Here, the lack of any narrative gives him free creative rein to experiment with a multitude of editing techniques – shots are reversed, baskets transition into tunnels, and roads are frantically sped up, resulting in a rhythmic and hypnotic work.
1963’s Tabeta Hito (An Eater, co-directed with Kazutomo Fujino), a surreal and gruesome exploration of restaurant dining and cannibalism featuring imagery later recycled in Hausu (House, 1977), would mark Obayashi’s first 16mm short, and his first festival success, earning him the Jury Award at the Belgium International Experimental Film Festival. This success would be outdone three years later by Emotion (1966), the culmination of his early avant-garde style. Described by David Cairns as a “caffeinated take on avant-garde cinema”, Emotion uses “Slomo, accelerated motion, blipvert-fast crosscutting, intermingled color and b&w”5 to both elucidate and obscure its vague narrative about a girl who arrives in a big town from a small fishing village, and gets involved with bizarre, fairy-tale like characters. The story is constantly toyed with, and undermined, by the presence of the film crew. Fake ending cards appear several times, whilst both Japanese and American narrations give subtly varying accounts of the film’s events. With its liberal and seemingly random use of different media such as photographs, stop-motion animation, and paintings, the film appears corrupted, as if it is about to collapse in on itself at any moment. It is also the earliest display of Obayashi’s recurring fascination with vampires- figures who drain the youth of their vitality and innocence, in turn being analogies for Japan’s authorities during WWII. Emotion was reportedly screened on many campuses abroad and was an underground success.
At the time, Obayashi’s next career decision must have seemed like a terrible artistic betrayal: he became a director of commercials for Dentsu, a large advertising company. Fellow avant-garde filmmakers, such as Yoichi Takabayashi and Takahiko Imura, had previously refused offers from Dentsu, seeing commercials as an ideological opposite to their personal films. Unable to resist the attraction of being given bigger budgets and being able to use more professional equipment, Obayashi essentially sold himself out. In doing so, he made what was perhaps the best and most vital decision of his career, with his time in the advertising industry helping to perfect both his signature style and efficiency. A “stylistic innovator in the advertising field”,6 Obayashi’s prolific filmmaking career can be traced back to this period, during which he created over 2000 commercials,7 sometimes working at the pace of one a day. He made them as personal films- albeit ones which happened to be sponsored, and featured Hollywood stars. His Mandom commercial, starring Charles Bronson, no less, is typical Obayashi, with its hyperactive editing and playful, surreal use of sound, splicing gunshot sounds with images of Bronson applying the deodorant. Aside from Confession (1968), a curious, pop-culture-influenced deconstruction of filmmaking, Obayashi would largely stick to making commercials for the next ten years.
The Late 70s: First Features
The circumstances surrounding Obayashi’s first feature-length film, House, are almost as extraordinary as the resulting film itself. Those who directed films for TOHO had to gradually work their way up the studio ladder before doing so, often working as assistant directors for years. Therefore, it was virtually unheard of when they hired Obayashi to direct this movie. Equally unheard of, and indicative of the desperation within Japan’s movie industry at the time, was vice-president Isao Matsuoka’s request to him to produce his own “completely incomprehensible script”, as the studio was “tired of losing money on completely comprehensible films”.8 These unique conditions led to one of the most striking feature-length debuts in cinema. Doubling down on Matsuoka’s request, Obayashi’s psychedelic horror film is stylistically eclectic, unpredictable, and unquantifiable. House’s generic core concept, revolving around seven girls who visit a possessed house, only to be eaten by it one by one, is rendered revelatory by Obayashi’s relentless, fast-paced onslaught of colourful filmic techniques. It is by far his most popular work outside Japan, receiving a significant cult following due to its manic energy and sheer creative, surreal imagery, being memorably described by Chuck Stevens as “a modern masterpiece of le cinema du WTF?!”.
As in all his best work, though, there is a sharp logic running beneath House’s surface absurdity. As Taryn McCabe puts it, its success lies in the “intentionality of its design”. Having consulted his young daughter, Chigumi, for story ideas, much of Obayashi’s imagery is taken from her dreams and fears. Her “youthful erratic thoughts” influenced its structure, whilst its unique effects were made to look “as though a child had made them”.9 As well as taking inspiration from his own daughter, the aesthetics of House are a result of Obayashi fusing his past careers as an independent avant-garde filmmaker, and as a commercial director. Much of its imagery and techniques are recycled from his 60s work, filtered through his later commercial sensibilities. The film is an overt exercise in economy. House’s boring bits are gleefully leapt over, with one scene of possible exposition being literally fast-forwarded, amplifying the film’s manic nature. Each girl has a defining characteristic in which the film never allows us to forget, with their names reflecting this- Gorgeous, Melody, Sweetie, Kung Fu, Mac (stomach), Fantasy and Prof- working as if each one is trying to sell their own product. The scenes featuring Gorgeous’s stepmother, played by the stylish Haruko Wanibuchi, whose graceful presence is exaggerated by slow-motion, melodramatic music, and soft lighting, appear like advertisements for items which do not exist. Meanwhile, the “overly-warm perfectionism”10 of the sets and props emphasises the sense that something is deeply, terribly “off” in this environment.
Though House was met coldly by most Japanese critics, it was a huge success with audiences, particularly younger ones. This fared well for Obayashi. He quickly directed and released two more consecutive TOHO films: Hitomi no Naka no Houmonsha (The Visitor in the Eye, 1977), an adaptation of the Black Jack manga series (the first of several manga adaptations by Obayashi) and Furimukeba Ai (Take Me Away!, 1978), a light romantic comedy. Both contain a few intriguing elements. The Visitor in the Eye boasts cult hero Jo Shishido in the main role, along with some striking animated opening titles. Take Me Away!’s San Francisco setting holds some curiosity as his only film which largely takes place in America. Yet, while not his worst works, both are remarkable mainly for how unremarkable and bereft of energy they are, as if Obayashi’s creativity and wit had been left in his House.
Kindaichi Kosuke no Boken (The Adventures of Kosuke Kindaichi, 1979) would more than make up for this. It was the first of Obayashi’s movies produced by Haruki Kadokawa, who would go on to produce several more Obayashi films, often varying in quality. It is little surprise that, despite containing a similarly eccentric style to House, Adventures has not enjoyed the same popularity outside Japan. Based on a popular series of Japanese detective books, the film’s playfulness largely stems through the way it deconstructs both the Kosuke Kindaichi series (untranslated in English until recently) and Obayashi’s own career. The film primarily centres around its titular protagonist and his partner, Lieutenant Todoroki, as they attempt to track down a missing statue head. As the statue is passed from owner to owner, the story grows increasingly knotted and convoluted, with each suspect containing links and hidden agendas. The story is further complicated by the persistent fog of pop-culture and self-reflexive references, which purposely distract Detective Kindaichi and, by extension, the audience, from the mystery at its core. It is, by some distance, Obayashi’s most meta-textual work, and one of his most complex and fascinating. The references to his past career are aggressively distracting: the narrative suddenly gives way to adverts for Maxim coffee, and, in one scene, Obayashi makes one of his more conspicuous cameos, as ‘a fellow who directed movies a long time ago’, having made a film called ‘Horse’.
Adventures’ references become increasingly suffocating as the film continues. Every clue Kindaichi comes across leads him back to something from the past, showing it to be an inescapable force. Obayashi has a deeply complex relationship with time, and, in particular, the past, as shown through Kindaichi’s inability to properly escape the trappings of references. It is parody working as a prison. The film shifts to a solemn tone in its conclusion, as the fourth wall is completely shattered, with the protagonist addressing the audience in a monologue regarding Japan’s relationship with violence. Adventures can be seen a purging of sorts of the past; a film in which in which its central mystery and its overwhelming sense of pastness work in constant tension. While the films Obayashi went on to make would contain self-reflexive elements, these would be less explicit, and, furthermore, would be integrated within the fabric of their narratives. In this sense, Adventures arguably marks the end of the first phase of his filmmaking career.
80s: an era of eclecticism
The 1980s would prove to be Obayashi’s most commercially successful decade. While he ‘branched out in a more commercial direction’11 in this decade, it was also his most adventurous period. He produced 15 feature-length films and two made-for-TV movies, hardly making the same film twice. While this would result in a few miscalculations, the work he put out had a strikingly high success ratio.
Obayashi would begin the decade with Nerawareta Gakuen (The Aimed School, 1981), a science-fiction film about a teenage girl who discovers she has psychic powers. After learning to use them, she must fend off a group of similarly powered invaders, who have taken over her school. Obayashi had the rare gift of making even high-concept works seem personal. The Aimed School is no exception, exploring his fear of fascism and distrust of authoritarian figures. The last 30 minutes of the film contain some of the most memorably surreal imagery in Obayashi’s filmography, as the battle between good and evil takes place against a backdrop of vivid, hand-drawn effects. The film also marks a recurring plot device within his 1980s canon: adolescents who obtain some sort of magical ability, only to eventually reject this in favour of pursuing a normal childhood, something greeted with greater appreciation by their conclusions. Obayashi’s appearance in the film, as an extremely unlucky driver, is also notable for being the most absurd of his frequent cameos.
Though The Aimed School is technically Obayashi’s first ‘idol’ picture, it is often overshadowed by his following work, Tenkosei (Transfer Students 12, 1982). While not necessarily his best, it is one of his most important films. It was an enormous critical and commercial success in his home country and is perhaps the most beloved Obayashi film in Japan. Essentially a body-swap picture, it follows two young students who accidentally switch both body and gender and are therefore forced to confront and navigate the strict gender expectations of Japanese society. Taking place in his hometown of Onomichi, Transfer Students would be the first of many features to be set there and constitutes the first part of the immensely popular ‘Onomichi trilogy’, later followed by Toki o Kakeru Shoujo (The Little Girl Who Conquered Time, 1983) and Sabishinbo (Lonely Heart, 1985).
Onomichi’s geographic and symbolic qualities are vital in the film’s effectiveness. The two main protagonists switch bodies after falling down some stairs together, and this sense of falling is amplified throughout the film by Onomichi’s geography, being characterised by its verticality. Obayashi’s love for his setting is also responsible for the film’s heart. Gone are the manic soundscapes of previous works, replaced by the gentle sounds of the sea, and rapid cutting is replaced by static wide shots. This attachment contributes to Transfer Students’ melancholic central dilemma in its second half: one of the main kids is soon to move away with his parents. The evanescence at the core of the film is reinforced through the setting’s imagery as a port town. Boats and trains come and go, and waves wash in and out. Nothing is permanent. Even in the works set outside Onomichi, its influence can be felt, with Obayashi’s characters often leaving home, or making a painful return. The final shot of Transfer Students is one of his best. After switching bodies back, the boy, Kazuo, still must move home. As he drives away with his parents, Kazumi, our other protagonist, and Kazuo’s romantic interest, runs after the vehicle. The film cuts to the perspective of Kazuo’s 8mm camera as he films her out of the window, the frame shrinking as he leaves her behind; forever to be encased as a grainy memory.
Obayashi’s next film was the TV movie Kawaii no Akuma (Cute Devil, 1982), part of Japan’s ‘Tuesday Night Suspense Theatre’ series. Further proving his ability to transform a generic concept into his own distinct style, Cute Devil’s story of an evil child is exaggerated at every possible opportunity by a myriad of zooms and harsh sounds, lending it a delicious tackiness. The opening wedding scene, for instance, is marked by a manic, bordering on hysterical, soundscape of bells and harsh winds. The result, while being one of Obayashi’s less thought-provoking works, is still one of his most purely enjoyable, displaying his ability to excel within small budget productions. He would soon follow it up with another ‘Suspense Theatre’ movie, Reineko Densetsu (The Legend of Reineko, 1983).
Overcome by a restless spontaneity, Obayashi decided to make the drama Haishi (The Deserted City, 1984) with his set of regular collaborators while visiting the canal town of Yanagawa. It centres around an exchange student from Tokyo and his burgeoning, but unspoken romance with the girl he stays with. He will eventually go back to Tokyo, while she feels bound to her hometown, destined to join the other locals in forever watching the canal move slowly onward. It is a testament to Obayashi that the film, despite being shot on a whim over two weeks, is one of his most restrained and quietly affecting, being all about what it means to leave something behind, and how it feels to be left behind.
In the same year, Obayashi would, in characteristically eclectic fashion, release Shouen Keniya (Kenya Boy), his only animated film. Though he attempts to liven up the story with sudden shifts into different animation styles, along with some of his most eccentric editing in years, it is one his few outright failures. The nationalistic overtones of its source material may have enlivened post-war Japanese spirits, but it feels dated by 80s standards, with its representation of African characters being stereotypical at best, and plainly offensive at worst. Even Obayashi’s ugliest works form an unavoidable part of his tapestry, though: Kenya Boy’s conclusion focuses on the havoc caused by nuclear weapons, a notion underpinning so many of his films.
The period between 1986-1989 is Obayashi’s strongest run. 1986 alone would see the release of joint masterpieces Karei no Ootobai, Kanojo no Shima (His Motorbike, Her Island) and Noyuki Yamayuki Umibe Yuki (Bound for the Fields, the Mountains, and the Seacoast). His Motorbike is Obayashi’s best romance film, a deeply bittersweet portrayal of a romantic triangle between a girl, Miyo, a boy, Koo, and his motorcycles. It contains his most charismatic female lead in Miyo, played by Kiwako Harada in her Japanese debut. A very valid criticism that can be levelled at Obayashi’s work is the “limited female agency”13 of his characters. Unlike many of his females, often portrayed as victims in even his best works, Miyo is fiery free spirit. If someone hits her, she’ll hit back twice as hard. She seeks liberation and happiness not through Koo, but through his bikes: the faster and closer to death it brings her, the better. Seeing her skill on the track, a fellow biker muses to Koo: ‘She’s gonna die’. Though the film concludes with the two protagonists travelling around happily on their bikes, this only feels like a temporary bliss. The words still resonate. Miyo will die young. His Motorbike is also one of Obayashi’s most beautifully shot films, switching between vivid, modern colour and nostalgic chromatic from frame to frame; memory and present forever colliding.
As if that were not enough, Bound, his funniest film, is even better. A tragicomedy set during the intensely nationalist period in Japan leading up to WWII, it follows the mischievous antics of Sudo, a young boy who, along with many of pupils at Keijo 1st primary, forms a rivalry with the formidable Osugi, a rebellious new student. The children settle their differences through their own constructed war game, in which the set rules slowly collapse, pushing it into violent anarchy. Though he was nearly 50 when he directed Bound, Obayashi clearly identifies much more with the endearingly rambunctious group of boys at the centre (some of the funniest child performances put to celluloid), rather than the stern adult authority figures, whom he undermines at every possible turn. Throughout, the approaching war is understood by Sudo and his friends as something which only the adults will have to death with. Hugely accessible, Bound foregoes Obayashi’s usual experimental aesthetic in favour of a more naturalist, gentle approach, frequently using static shots. That is, until the last 10 minutes. A gun is fired, and the film is plunged into a grainy, hellish black and white. In the most surreal and haunting of Obayashi’s endings, characters suddenly disintegrate as the fun turns to ashes, and the screen is enveloped by a nuclear bomb. In another of his magic tricks, Bound is finally revealed to be a tragedy.
Obayashi would not return to directly tackle WWII again for another 26 years. Instead, he followed up the deliberately measured Bound with one of his strangest, and campest pictures, Hyouryuu Kyoushitsu (The Drifting Classroom, 1987). It is plagued by poor effects and questionable decisions. Worst of the film’s many miscalculations is the setting in an international school, meaning half the dialogue spoken in English, resulting in some deeply awkward performances. Still, the film is perversely enjoyable, and touches upon the sense of displacement so common in Obayashi’s work, with the characters longing for homes they can never return to.
1988’s Ijintachi to no Natsu (Summer Among the Zombies14, 1988) further explores Obayashi’s personal and complex relationship with pastness. Based on Taichi Yamada’s novel, the movie follows Harada, a disillusioned middle-aged screenwriter in Tokyo. While location scouting for a story, he gets lost, ending up in Asakusa, the district he grew up in. There he encounters the ghosts of his parents, who invite him into their home. He knows that they are dead, but desperate to recapture his youth, he keeps going back to see them. Paradoxically, the more time Harada spends with them, the more rapidly he ages. Back at his own home, he begins a relationship with a mysterious woman, who may or may not be a ghost too. As well as being a fascinating exploration of the trappings of nostalgia, Summer is also one of the great screen portrayals of the ties between reality and escapism. Obayashi’s frequent cinematographer, Yoshitaka Sakamoto, responsible for some of his film’s most endearing images, is not given enough credit. Interiors are beautifully rendered and contrasted; from the golden, soft glow of Harada’s parents’ traditional abode to inky black subway tunnels and his own cold, modern apartment, all edges, embodying Japan’s late 80s economic bubble.
Pekin no Suika (Beijing Watermelon, 1989) would see Obayashi finish the decade on a strong note. Depicting the exploits of a Japanese fruit salesman, Haruzo, who befriends a group of Chinese students, the film is Obayashi at his most sensitive and nuanced. Things are implied, but mostly unsaid, such as the unrequited romance between Haruzo and one of his students, all seen in the brief looks shared between the two. In another scene, as the students look through his old photographs, they catch a glimpse of Haruzo’s father in a war uniform. He quickly snatches the picture back. The Tiananmen Square Massacre is not directly mentioned, but its resonance can be felt in the white screen than comes just before its Brechtian conclusion: 37 seconds, added up from the numbers of its date. Discussions of Obayashi’s characterisations are often ignored in favour of his aesthetic choices, but they deserve thorough attention, often separating his successes from his failures, and Beijing Watermelon is evidence of this.
90s & 00s: mixed successes
While the next two decades would see Obayashi continue his commercial successes from the 1980s, the quality of his output would arguably become more mixed. Futari (Chizuko’s Younger Sister, 1991) contains the best and worst of Obayashi. It has a beautiful score, done by regular composer Joe Hisaishi, and has some of the most striking imagery in his oeuvre, with a concert taking place against a backdrop of exaggerated fireworks being among his most memorable sequences. The story, about a teenage girl being guided through life by the ghost of her sister, though, is overly cloying and episodic, being tonally inconsistent. It is full of strange choices: an attempted rape scene near the beginning borders on distasteful and is bizarrely shrugged off moments later; and the repeated use of a laughing doll-figurine shows Obayashi’s eccentricities irritating, rather than intriguing. The film was popular enough to win a few awards in Japan, though, and would launch Obayashi’s ‘Shin-Onomichi’ trilogy, with Ashita (Goodbye for Tomorrow, 1995) and Ano Natsu no Hi (One Summer’s Day, 1999) following it.
Seishun Dendeke Dekedeke (The Rocking Horsemen, 1992) is a funny and warm look at a group of high schoolers in the 1960s who form a rock band. Though he would mainly make use of classical or jazz music in his films, Obayashi’s soft spot for rock music was evidenced back in House, with its score by the band Godiego clearly indebted to contemporary Western bands. The Rocking Horsemen makes this fondness more explicit, being a tribute of sorts to 1950s and 1960s American rock. While it lacks the hints of darkness that would define his greatest and most complex works, it is still one of his more jubilant and energetic films. True to his continued eclecticism, 1993 alone would see three him completing three highly differing films: the curious and strangely personal documentary Russian Lullabies, romance Haruka, Nosutarujii (Haruka, Nostalgia), and the special effects driven kids film Mizo no Tabibito: Samurai Kizu (Samurai Kids). The latter was one of Obayashi’s most commercially successful works, being the third highest-grossing Japanese film of its year and would receive considerable attention for its use of then-cutting-edge technology.
While Samurai Kids would be Obayashi’s most commercially successful film of the 1990s, Abe Sada no Shogai (Sada) would be his most internationally popular. It won the FIPRESCI award at the Berlin International Film Festival and would be one of his few films to eventually gain a physical release outside of Japan. Though Nagasima Oshima had previously explored the real-life figure of Abe Sada with his famously controversial Ai no Korida (In the Realm of the Senses, 1972), Obayashi’s interpretation is more sympathetic and picaresque, exploring her backstory and romances. The notorious incident in which she cut off a man’s penis is approached sheepishly at the film’s conclusion, with Obayashi not quite knowing how to fit it in with his established whimsy. Just as much as he portrayed women as unfortunate victims, Obayashi’s men could be crude and piggish, the most extreme examples of which can be found in this work. The montage of Sada’s first time acting as a sex worker, with the film cycling rapidly through men on top of her, switching between the perspectives of both her and her clients, is made to seem heart-breaking and grotesque in equal measure.
Obayashi’s output would slow down heavily over the next decade, releasing only six films, half of what he produced in the 1990s. Perhaps aware of his increasing age, his movies would take on a more sombre tone, largely avoiding any fantasy works. Riyuu (The Motive, 2004) is a murder mystery film where the mystery takes second place to a more pressing question: why would someone commit a murder? Foreshadowing the direction of his final works, The Motive is intimidatingly dense. Characters are relentlessly introduced from scene to scene, and random anecdotes and genuine exposition are mixed up. Too smart to let himself completely fall to genre conventions, Obayashi styles The Motive like a documentary, with characters explaining the film’s events to the camera. It is genre deconstruction, with the occasional reconstruction. Jazzy and playful for most of its runtime, it becomes surprisingly moving in its last moments, turning into an explicit meditation on violence. The ghost of the killer still haunts the apartment block, and the ending titles state that his spirit can only leave once the true reason for his crimes have been answered. Obayashi argues that, whether an atomic bomb or a murder, humanity’s imprints of chaos can only vanish once actions are properly understood. In this film, though, he admits that, sometimes, a true answer may never come.
Another notable Obayashi film from this period is Tenkosei: Sayonara Anata (Switching: Goodbye Me, 2007), a reimagining of his own Transfer Students. While it improves on the original in some ways- most notably by giving the parental figures much greater depth- Switching lacks much of what made the original so personal. Obayashi’s movement of the film’s action from Onomichi to another city robs the story of its geographical interest. Furthermore, the drastic twist in the film’s second half- that one of the teenagers is terminally ill- pushes the film into emotionally manipulative territory. It also means that the original’s witty and necessary critiques of Japan’s gender expectations are replaced by melodrama. Obayashi would approach the topic of terminal illness again in Sono Hi no Mae Ni (Before That Day, 2008), which features the final performance of one of his most recognisable regular actors, Toru Minegishi, who succumbed to lung cancer shortly before its release. After this Obayashi would not make another film for until 2012, the longest gap in his career.
Obayashi’s final four works would explicitly concentrate on the event which always sat beneath the surface of so much of his art: WWII, and, more specifically, the atomic bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Kora Sora no Hana: Nagaoka Hanabi Monogatari (Casting Blossoms to the Sky, 2012) would begin the last and best of his loose trilogies, known as ‘The War trilogy’. Obayashi stated that, when Japan lost the war, the belief was that “no longer will the Japanese think materialistically or conveniently” and would instead “learn to be compassionate and work together”.15 Casting Blossoms is a film made with this mindset. It is an essay film tied to a semi-fictional narrative, centring on a journalist who visits the Japanese village of Nagaoka to learn about its inhabitants and their experiences of WWII, and to also watch a stage play performed by children which depicts the bombing of the village. The film ultimately concludes with one of his most hopeful endings, his voiceover, accompanied by Joe Hisaishi’s light score, declaring that, one day, ‘flowers of prayer will surely, most certainly bloom’ over the skies of Pearl Harbour.
With No no Nanananoka (Seven Weeks, 2014), however, the mood invariably shifts into more pessimistic territory, and the result is a more complex work than Casting Blossoms. It is his first film written after the 3/11 incident in 2011, in which a major earthquake in East Japan caused widespread destruction and fatalities, as well as triggering a nuclear accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. Koichi Hasegawa has written that “these events constitute Japan’s largest disaster since the Second World War and one of the most severe disasters in the history of modern Japan”.16 Obayashi has stated that these events pushed him to create his war trilogy. Little long-term change was made by Japan’s government after the event. Seven Weeks poses the question: How can we avoid future disasters if we cannot even learn from past ones? Direct references to 3/11 are littered throughout the film, one of Obayashi’s darkest. Beginning with the death of a 95-year-old Mitsuo, Seven Weeks mostly takes place around his funeral, as friends and relatives reflect on his life, his experiences of the war, how this affected him, and their concerns for the future. All the while, the poetry of Chuya Nakahara, a key inspiration to Obayashi, is interwoven into the proceedings. While perhaps overly talkative, Seven Weeks is one of his most interesting and best-written films, with Mitsuo’s remark that ‘Life is as delicious as good coffee’ being one of cinema’s most transcendent lines of dialogue.
His final work in the trilogy, Hanagatami (2017), was a passion project for which he wrote the script back in the 1970s, having originally intended it to be his debut film. In an awful twist, Obayashi was diagnosed with terminal cancer during the pre-production stage and was given only a few months to live. Remarkably, he lived to finish Hanagatami, and, even more remarkably, it is perhaps his greatest work, with Obayashi fully committing himself to every frame, aware that it could be his final statement. Based on the Kazuo Dan novel of the same name, the film takes place in 1941, just months before the Pearl Harbour attack, as a disparate group of teenagers desperately attempt to enjoy themselves and find meaning in their lives as the threat of war closes in on them. What primarily ties the characters together, though, are their individually complex fixations on Mina, a young girl who is dying of tuberculosis.
Obayashi has previously stated that “the script for Hausu and Hanagatami are actually the same”.17 While this may initially seem surprising, they indeed share a similar dynamic, with both sets of characters trying to have fun despite an approaching doom. Aesthetically, Hanagatami is perhaps even more extreme than House, with every element being heightened to the point of tragic, desperate hysteria. Meals are rendered sickly by the rapid-cutting and sudden close-ups, moons are monstrously big, and conversations are plagued by frequent repetitions and flashbacks. Such urgency is only heightened by Obayashi’s decision to cast actors who are much older than their characters. Shunsuke Kobozuka, who portrays the main role of Toshihiko, was in his mid-30s during filming, and it shows, looking like a cosplayer in his uniform, as if he is desperately trying to cling to a childhood that has long vanished. To Aiko Masubuchi, the actions of these adult actors “are so hyperbolic that they…verge on a sense of horror”.18 Few films manage to fuse form and content in such an evocative and personal manner. Hanagatami is the perfect and most concise expression of Obayashi’s aesthetic: as a desperate grasp for life.
Hanagatami would have made a fitting end to Obayashi’s career, but he had other plans. Somehow, he lived another three years to complete an even more ambitious follow-up, Labyrinth of Cinema (2020), a film which, “medically speaking…shouldn’t exist”.19 A more cautiously optimistic work than its predecessor, Labyrinth is a consideration of how an understanding of the past can work towards shaping a better future. Befitting its title, the film is the densest and most complex of his career, at times verging on abstruse. It is often exhausting, but never less than fascinating. The story takes place in present-day Onomichi (his first film set there in 20 years), where its last surviving cinema is having a night of screening old war movies before it shuts down for good. After a flash of lightning, 13-year-old girl, Noriko, is transported into one of the films, and is soon followed by three boys, who proceed to follow her across various filmscapes, each set during differing periods of Japan’s violent and chaotic past. As they attempt to rescue her, the line between reality and fiction becomes increasing blurred, as the real-world and film-world converge.
Fittingly, this final work is Obayashi’s most personal; a love letter to cinema and the power of the image, guided by Chuya Nakahara’s poetry. For better, or worse, it also represents the “syntactic omega point” of his aesthetic, with Evan Morgan describing the film as “the last picture show unspooling inside a dying, movie-addled brain as it switches feverishly between half-remembered film reels and lurches towards the unknown.”20 It is full of half-remembered thoughts and contradictions; celebrating humanity while lamenting it; warning us about the future while also telling us to dance; whimsical and cynical. It is truly, utterly, an Obayashi film, more so than any of his previous works.
As evidenced, Obayashi’s work is far from hollow. Moreover, in charting his career, one can see a strong argument in favour of him having largely retained his streak of experimentalism, from his early shorts through to his last film. Labyrinth’s manic, shifting visuals make it seem less like the work of a dying man, and more a work by someone who could keep making films over several more decades. Through his prolific and eclectic nature, Obayashi has been both utterly restless while also being sentimental and nostalgic. This tension is what informs so many of his best works, with many of his characters clinging on to a past which is rapidly slipping away. In Wales, we have a word: ‘Hiraeth’. It roughly translates as a longing for a home to which one cannot return to, a grief for a lost place. Regardless of the varying quality in his films, the primary recurring element is the unspoken, painful understanding amongst his characters that the past cannot be lived in. This also reflects Obayashi’s own feelings, as seen through his relationship with Onomichi, the childhood city he had long left, but frequently found himself returning to for so many of his films.
It is impossible to separate a discussion of Obayashi’s themes from his aesthetics; for the two are intrinsically tied together. It is the particular use of imagery and editing that makes an Obayashi film an Obayashi film. Largely working within studio systems throughout his career, he would often take generic narratives and render them original and striking. Even in his more restrained works, one will find moments of heightened style, which often appear abruptly, eliciting new meanings through his witty aesthetic play. In viewing his body of work, despite its many flaws, one ultimately gains an appreciation for the cinematic medium as a whole- how it can convey abstract, unspoken emotions which may not always be entirely expressible in the novel. While there is an increasing amount being written on Obayashi, he is still largely omitted from wider discussions, and many of his best films remain largely unavailable. In tracing his career and body of work, I hope that I have established a case for Obayashi as a singular, fascinating director, ripe for wider discovery in the West.
- The Girl in the Picture (E no Naka no Shoujo) (Short, 1958)
- Dandanko (Short, 1960)
- Thursday (Mokuyoubi) (Short, 1961)
- Nakasendo (Short, 1961)
- Remembrance (Katami) (Short, 1962)
- Onomichi (Short, 1963)
- An Eater (Tabeta Hito) (Short, 1963)
- Complexe (Short, 1964)
- Emotion (Short, 1966)
- Confession (Short, 1968)
- House (Hausu) (1977)
- The Visitor in the Eye (Hitomi no Naka no Houmonsha) (1977)
- Take Me Away! (Furimukeba Ai) (1978)
- The Adventures of Detective Kosuke Kindaichi (Kindaichi Kosuke no Boken) (1979)
- The Aimed School (Nerawareta Gakuen) (1981)
- Transfer Students (Tenkosei) (1982)
- Cute Devil (Kawaii no Akuma) (Made for TV, 1982)
- The Little Girl Who Leapt Through Time (Toki o Kakeru Shoujo) (1983)
- The Legend of Reineko (Reineko Densetsu) (Made for TV, 1983)
- The Deserted City (Haishi) (1984)
- Kenya Boy (Shounen Keniya) (1984)
- The Island Closest to Heaven (Tengoku ni Ichiban Chikai Shima) (1984)
- Lonely Heart (Sabishinbo) (1985)
- Four Sisters (Shimaizaka) (1985)
- April Fish (Poisson D’Avril) (1986)
- His Motorbike, Her Island (Karei no Ootobai, Kanojo no Shima) (1986)
- Bound for the Fields, the Mountains, and the Seacoast (Noyuki Yamayuki Umibe Yuki) (1986)
- The Drifting Classroom (Hyouryuu Kyoushitsu) (1987)
- Summer Among the Zombies (Ijintachi to no Natsu) (1988)
- The Strange Couple (Nihon Junjo- Den Okashina Futari) (1988)
- Beijing Watermelon (Pekin no Suika) (1989)
- Chizuko’s Younger Sister (Futari) (1991)
- The Rocking Horsemen (Seishun Dendeke Dekedeke) (1992)
- Russian Lullabies (Made for TV, 1993)
- Haruka, Nostalgia (Haruka, Nosutarujii) (1993)
- Samurai Kids (Mizo no Tabibito: Samurai Kizzu) (1993)
- A Mature Woman (Onna-Zakari) (1994)
- Goodbye for Tomorrow (Ashita) (1995)
- The Deduction of Tom Cat Holmes (Mikeneko Holmes no Suiri) (Made for TV, 1998)
- Sada (Abe Sada no Shogai) (1998)
- I Want to Hear the Wind’s Song (Kaze no Uta ga Kikitai) (1998)
- The Stupid Teacher (Manuke-Sensei) (1998)
- One Summer’s Day (Ano Natsu no Hi) (1999)
- The Tale of Nagaharu Yodogawa (Yodogawa Nagaharu Monogatari) (2000)
- The Last Snow (Nagoriyuki) (2002)
- The Motive (Riyuu) (2004)
- Switching: Goodbye Me (Tenkosei: Sayonara Anata) (2007)
- Song of Goodbye (Lycoris: Ha Mizu Hana Mizu Monogatari) (2007)
- Before That Day (Sono Hi no Mae Ni) (2008)
- Casting Blossoms to the Sky (Kora Sora no Hana: Nagaoka Hanabi Monogatari) (2012)
- Seven Weeks (No no Nanananoka) (2014)
- Hanagatami (2017)
- Labyrinth of Cinema (2020)
- Alexander Jacoby, A Critical Handbook of Japanese Film Directors: From the Silent Era to the Present Day (Berkley: Stone Bridge Press, 2008), pp.227. ↩
- This will henceforth be referred to as WWII ↩
- Paul Roquet, ‘Nobuhiko Obayashi, vagabond of time’, Midnight Eye (10th November 2009) ↩
- Chuck Stephens, ‘House: The housemaidens’, Criterion (26th October, 2010) ↩
- David Cairns, ‘The forgotten: Nobuhiko Obayashi’s Emotion (1967)’, Mubi Notebook (12th November 2015) ↩
- Paul Roquet, ‘Nobuhiko Obayashi, vagabond of time’, Midnight Eye (10th November 2009) ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Alicia Haddick, ‘The legacy of House director Nobuhiko Obayashi,’ OtaQuest (5th June, 2020) ↩
- The best Japanese film of every year- from 1925 to now,’ BFI (17th May 2020) ↩
- Also known as I Are You, You Am Me and Exchange Students ↩
- Ren Scateni, ‘Where to begin with Nobuhiko Obayashi,’ BFI (27th July 2020) ↩
- Also known as The Discarnates ↩
- Aiko Masubuchi, ‘Working for tomorrow: An interview with Nobuhiko Obayashi’ (24th January, 2019) ↩
- Koichi Hasegawa, ‘Continuities and discontinuities of Japan’s political activism before and after the Fukushima disaster in David Chiavacci and Julia Obinger, Social Movements and Political Activism in Contemporary Japan: Re-emerging from Invisibility (New York: Routledge, 2018), pp.115. ↩
- Aiko Masubuchi, ‘Working for tomorrow: An interview with Nobuhiko Obayashi,’ Mubi Notebook (24th January, 2019) ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Evan Morgan, ‘Not the last picture show: Nobuhiko Obayashi’s Labyrinth of Cinema, Mubi Notebook (28th January, 2020) ↩
- Evan Morgan, ‘Not the last picture show: Nobuhiko Obayashi’s Labyrinth of Cinema,’ Mubi Notebook (28th January, 2020) ↩