Filmmaker Nobuhiko Obayashi devotes himself to a message of peace via the big screen

by May Masangkay

Kyodo

At a time when peace appears fragile, veteran film director Nobuhiko Obayashi is not wasting any moment to remind the world’s young crop of creators about their power to rid the world of nuclear and other security threats.

“I am part of the last generation in Japan who knows what real war is, thus I want to properly convey to young people what I have experienced, what I know,” says the 79-year-old native of Onomichi, Hiroshima Prefecture.

Obayashi, who lived through World War II which ended with Japan’s surrender on Aug. 15, 1945, believes it is his “duty and responsibility” to inspire budding filmmakers in Japan, Asia and the world to use films as a tool to convey peace.

“If you dream about it, it will certainly become a reality. As long as you are making war films, wars will not end, but as long as you are making films about peace, there will be peace in the world someday,” he says.

His words strike a chord as tensions between the United States and North Korea are ratcheting up following Pyongyang’s two intercontinental ballistic missile tests in July, and the two nations trading barbs on potential military attacks.

Obayashi, whose films have been recognized at the Berlin International Film Festival, announced before filming his latest work, “Hanagatami,” in August last year that he had stage-four lung cancer. He was told he had only six months to live.

He continued filming “Hanagatami,” to be shown in December, while undergoing treatment and surprised people with his recovery. In June this year, the seasoned director made a speech in Tokyo at the Short Shorts Film Festival & Asia, where he was a jury member.

There, Obayashi spoke of the last will of the renowned Japanese director Akira Kurosawa. Obayashi made a documentary on the making of Kurosawa’s acclaimed 1990 film “Dreams.”

Recounting his conversation with Kurosawa, Obayashi quoted him as saying, “Obayashi-kun, how old are you? Ah, 50. I am almost 80. But what it took 80 years for me to learn, you can do it in 60 years so you can go on (filming) 20 years longer than I.”

Kurosawa further told Obayashi, “If that is hard for you, then your children or your grandchildren (can do it).”

The “Seven Samurai” director predicted that if he could live until 400, he would be able to witness a world with no war thanks to the power of cinema.

After that speech, Obayashi was surprised that his message resonated with young creators.

“I was happy and also scared because it meant they are already feeling this sense of urgency … that a war may be coming,” says the director, whose four-decade career has spawned hits such as the 1983 film “Toki o Kakeru Shojo” (“The Little Girl Who Conquered Time”).

Obayashi, who sees films as a medium for viewers to form their philosophy, has chosen not to create a war film for fear it may be diluted into a mere action flick.

Making a film that blatantly shows the cruelty of war may discourage people from going to war, but he warns it would be too “simplistic” to think that way.

With war films aplenty over the years, Obayashi laments that some movies portray men as self-sacrificing for the country and feature beautiful music that risk romanticizing the idea of war and patriotism.

He worries that such films could subliminally encourage some young viewers to emulate the characters and die for the country in the event of a war. If that is the case, “This is a crime,” he says.

Mentioning the story of his wife, Kyoko, whose older brother died as a kamikaze pilot, Obayashi says people like him gave up their lives to give a better future to the younger generations. A movie that encourages young people to go to war “betrays their wishes for peace.”

But he wanted to depict war and peace, giving birth to films with manga-style visual effects such as “Kono Sora no Hana” (“Casting Blossoms to the Sky”) in 2012 and “No no Nanananoka” (“Seven Weeks”) two years later.

Obayashi recalls his anxiety when “Kono Sora no Hana,” a story about a fireworks display in Nagaoka, Niigata Prefecture, heavily bombed in the war, was shown at Hawaii’s Pearl Harbor in front of relatives of victims of Japan’s 1941 attack.

After the screening, one of the surviving kin rushed to thank him for the film, which she said was a good gift for the children in both their countries working together for peace.

Obayashi himself was shaped by his wartime experience. He has inserted elements of war in other works such as the 1977 surreal horror film “House.” In his first feature film characteristic of his avant-garde style, images of nuclear bombings were shown several times.

Obayashi is also part of a group of film directors who uphold civic freedom and has opposed Japan’s new legislation to criminalize the planning of a range of crimes. Critics fear the so-called anti-conspiracy law could suppress civil liberty.

Utopian as it may seem, he is determined to continue the trail of peace Kurosawa has set out on and pass it on to the next batch of directors.

“Young filmmakers seeking to pull world peace closer via movies are my dream and hope,” Obayashi says.