Why this might not seem so easy
Until a few years ago, Nobuhiko Obayashi, who died in early 2020, was virtually unknown in the west. The tide turned in 2009 when House (Hausu), Obayashi’s trippy 1977 feature debut, was first screened at the New York Asian Film Festival before securing a DVD release in both America and the UK. The film instantly garnered praise among critics and the public, skyrocketing into the pantheon of cult films. To further sanctify its status, the hypnotic and intimidating muzzle of the house’s demonic white cat started popping up on pins and t-shirts sported by initiated cinephiles.
But Obayashi’s unbridled genius deserves to be remembered for much more than House. From experimenting with 8mm and 16mm in his early 20s – together with Shuji Terayama and Toshio Matsumoto, Obayashi was a key figure of the Japanese experimental scene in the 1960s – to his late films, which were guided by an urgent moral call, Obayashi’s output spanned genres, often defying forms and conventions. Even when he made thousands of TV commercials in the 1970s, his idiosyncratic style filtered through.
How to describe Obayashi’s signature style, then? The hyperbolic use of the green screen – over which he projected kitschy otherworldly realities as well as suggestive Japanese landscapes – seems to be its predominant characteristic. This often gives his films a unique and endearing amateurish flair. The range of experimental techniques he used is as varied as it is exhilarating to sit through even his longest titles. The exuberant use of colour, especially the saturated hues of his painted backgrounds, and the playfulness of his visual tricks make the experience of an Obayashi picture rarely short of sensational.
The best place to start – Hanagatami
Although Hausu introduced Obayashi to the west, it might not be the best candidate for beginning your exploration. It remains his most famous film, but it also sets up an expectation of extreme quirkiness that isn’t representative of all of his work. Recently released on Blu-ray in the UK, where it was sadly bypassed for cinema release, Hanagatami (2017) works as a more comprehensive entry point. Capping off Obayashi’s war trilogy – following Casting Blossoms to the Sky (2012) and Seven Weeks (2014) – Hanagatami denounces Japan’s foolish militarism at the time of the Second World War, while at the same time offering an elegy to the impermanence of youth.
Originally conceived in the 1970s, the film is based on a novella of the same name written in 1937 by Kazuo Dan. Set in the spring of 1941, it revolves around a group of teenage boys and girls navigating romantic relationships and contrasting ideologies while war inescapably looms. The film is narrated by the adolescent Toshihiko, who, against all odds, lives a long life surviving his friends – a fate that proves both a blessing and a curse for the unfortunate children of the war period.
Hanagatami’s nostalgic tone is contrasted by a wealth of rapturous colours and compositions — the sky is often tinged with a bold shade of red; the milky pallor of the moon frames the ephemeral face of a girl sick with tuberculosis in an enchanting subjective shot. With this film, Obayashi’s flamboyant aesthetic perfectly complements his pacifist philosophy.
What to watch next
Now’s the time to sample Obayashi’s maddening first feature film. In less than 90 minutes of hypnotic craziness, Hausu deploys an exceptionally thin plot – a gang of schoolgirls visit a haunted house in the countryside – but plays it all for deranged excess. Expect a voracious piano, a flying severed head, feverish slow motion, and repeated visual collages that could have been ripped from a children’s storybook.
Taking the excess down a notch, School in the Crosshairs (1981) pairs a coming-of-age story with a critique of fascist rhetoric and tops it all off with a sci-fi twist. A similar amalgamation of genres defines Exchange Students (1982) and The Girl Who Leapt through Time (1983), which respectively see their female protagonists – once again high-school students – swapping bodies with a classmate and travelling across time. If Obayashi’s several schoolgirl-centred films occasionally lead to hackneyed love stories and limited female agency, the later His Motorbike, Her Island (1986) works as the perfect antidote, with the magnetic and carefree biker woman Miyo as the film’s co-lead.
The theme of war soon emerged as another of Obayashi’s abiding concerns. In 1986’s Bound for the Fields, the Mountains and the Seacoast, a skirmish between school kids in an Inland Sea town in the years prior to the Second World War doubles as an allegory of the approaching conflict. Later, Casting Blossoms to the Sky and Seven Weeks both merge documentary with fiction to remind the younger generations of wartime atrocities. These two films begin his late-period war trilogy, which was conceived as an anti-nuclear plea in the devastating aftermath of the Tohoku earthquake of 11 March 2011.
Obayashi’s swansong, Labyrinth of Cinema (2019), is another anti-war work, a three-hour fantasy in which three men are magically transported back in time to a movie theatre in the time just before Hiroshima. It attempts the task of making cinema a tool that “can change the future, if not the past”, as Obayashi tells us in the film.
His experimental short films are also worth sampling. Emotion (1966) is a 40-minute riff on Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla via Roger Vadim’s Blood and Roses (1960) that’s brimming with inventive jump-cuts and switches from colour to black and white. The Girl in the Picture (1960) is another early playground for the director’s aesthetic adventuring.
Where not to start
Not all of Obayashi’s sci-fi-cum-coming-of-age stories turned out to be successful experiments. The Visitor in the Eye (1977) is the convoluted story of high school student Komori who, after an accident on the tennis court, needs to have urgent eye surgery. Thanks to her new eye she can see again, but she also spots a mysterious man floating in her field vision every time it rains. Based on Osamu Tezuka’s manga Black Jack, the film soon turns into a rather dull crime story with a too gullible girl at its helm.
Similarly, The Drifting Classroom (1987) is another sweet mess. An entire international school is time-warped into a different dimension where dunes stretch as far as the eye can see and weird insect monsters attack the students. Joe Hisaishi’s sentimental score can’t salvage a film too hindered by its cringy dialogue and uneven pace, yet even in Obayashi’s weaker films, the scale of this filmmaker’s off-kilter imagination is often bracing to behold.