Beyond House: Nobuhiko Obayashi

Nobuhiko Obayashi

Nobuhiko Obayashi, who died on Friday at the age of eighty-two, will always be remembered first and foremost for House (Hausu), the 1977 cult favorite that Chuck Stephens has called “a modern masterpiece of le cinéma du WTF?!” But Obayashi made films throughout his long life, beginning with the home movies he shot with the 8 mm camera his father gave him when he was eight and carrying on through a series of experimental films in the 1960s, the thousands of television commercials he directed in the ’70s, a string of coming-of-age movies starring pop “idols” in the ’80s, and a war trilogy in the 2010s before his final feature, Labyrinth of Cinema, premiered in Toronto just last fall.

Several of Obayashi’s earliest works can be sampled at UbuWeb, and the collection includes the best known of these, Emotion (1966). Revisiting this “forty-minute oddity” for the Notebook in 2015, David Cairns spotted affinities with the work of Canadian animator Norman McLaren and A Hard Day’s Night director Richard Lester. “Slomo, accelerated motion, blipvert-fast crosscutting, intermingled color and black and white, stills and motion, upended camera, and a ceaselessly tumbling red parasol vie for attention,” wrote Cairns. “Voiceovers from the principles help move it along, with the late Donald Richie, that great scholar of Japanese cinema, interjecting some helpful English semi-translations.” Along Takahiko Iimura, Richie and Obayashi cofounded an experimental film collective in Tokyo in 1964, and the extended circle included such artists as Genpei Akasegawa and Yoko Ono.

Writing about Obayashi for Midnight Eye in 2009, Paul Roquet highlighted a crucial night in the late ’60s when the collective presented a group show of films and performances attended by a producer from Dentsu, Japan’s largest advertising firm. After the show, this producer approached the artists to suggest that he would pay to see the avant techniques he’d just witnessed applied to TV ads. Of all the filmmakers and musicians, only Obayashi took up his offer.

The ads Obayashi made over the next few decades, many of them featuring such stars from the west as Kirk Douglas, Sophia Loren, Catherine Deneuve, and Charles Bronson, were marked by a goofy surrealism rooted in his experimental work. “Obayashi’s career helps illuminate how mainstream media digested the aesthetic innovations of the 1960s,” writes Roquet. By the mid-1970s, as the Japanese New Wave was waning, the country’s studios were looking for ways to reinvigorate their lineups and reclaim some of the market share lost to U.S. blockbusters such as Jaws. As Obayashi told Aiko Masubuchi in the Notebook early last year, producers at Toho approached him, “and they asked, ‘do you have a film that’s similar to sharks attacking humans?’ And so I consulted my daughter Chigumi and Hausu was born.”

Chigumi was eleven at the time and the story she and her father dreamed up together had seven schoolgirls venturing out to a country house possessed by a bloodthirsty spirit. As Chuck Stephens points out in the essay that accompanies our 2010 release, the plot hardly matters. “House,” he wrote, “is a film far more focused on the telling than the tale, haunted by more formalist freak-outs, sudden excursions into time-warping slow motion, and ludicrously lysergic, analog-age matte effects than any other twenty Japanese films released that or any other year.”

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (1983), featuring pop idol Tomoyo Harada in her on-screen debut, is somewhat typical of the films Obayashi made following House. A young protagonist will discover that he or she is suddenly equipped with a paranormal power, then head out for adventure, but ultimately, as Roquet points out, “reject these supernatural abilities by the end of the film, in favor of returning to a more ‘normal’ existence . . . Experimentation in youth (and cinema) is fun, the films seem to say, but this freedom must be abandoned as part of the transition to adulthood.”

In 1998, Obayashi won the FIPRESCI Prize in Berlin for Sada, a retelling of the true story made famous by Nagisa Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses (1976). That decade began with Obayashi shooting a documentary about the making of Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams (1990). Talking to Mark Schilling in the Japan Times last year, Obayashi recalled that Kurosawa told him: “‘Wars can start right away, but it takes 400 years to make peace.’ That’s been my theme, my watchword, ever since.” All three films comprising Obayashi’s war trilogy—Casting Blossoms to the Sky (2012), Seven Weeks (2015), and Hanagatami (2017)—were made in response to the devastating Tohoku earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan on March 11, 2011. “For those who experienced losing the war, 3/11 was a do-over,” Obayashi told Aiko Masubuchi.

With Labyrinth of Cinema, Obayashi revisited the Second World War one last time. Opening in present-day Onomichi, Obayashi’s hometown, three young men enter the city’s last movie theater on its closing night. The proprietress is bidding farewell by screening a string of Japanese war movies, and like Buster Keaton in Sherlock Jr., the young viewers are absorbed into the events playing out on the screen. Writing for the Notebook, Evan Morgan describes what follows as a “three-hour atrocity revue: the conflagrations of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (and the birth and adolescence of cinema) are paraded before Obayashi’s young people, who experience a variety show of imperialist violence via the movies, skipping across film styles and genres as they attempt to outrun—and even alter—history.”

It’s something of a miracle that Labyrinth of Cinema got made. In 2016, just as he was beginning to shoot Hanagatami, Obayashi was diagnosed with cancer and told he had three months to live. “I never worried if I could finish it,” he told Schilling. For Obayashi, the “most important thing of all” was to do “something that no one has done before . . . Some say that because movies have a long history and everyone all over the world has been making them everything has been done already. There’s nothing more to do. I say that’s nonsense. There are still a lot of things that have never been done.”

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