An interview with Nobuhiko Obayashi is like an interview with no one else, and I say that as someone who has done hundreds.
A pioneering experimental filmmaker in the 1960s who became an in-demand maker of TV commercials in the ’70s and, in partnership with maverick producer Haruki Kadokawa, a director of films starring popular female idols in the ’80s, Obayashi would seem to be a classic example of the movie wunderkind who goes commercial. But, dig deeper in his filmography, beginning with his 1977 feature debut — the wacky, wonderful horror-fantasy “House” — and you will find a fiercely independent type who took even work-for-hire assignments in directions distinctly his own.
In his most recent film, “Labyrinth of Cinema,” Obayashi addresses a frequent theme in postwar Japanese cinema: Japan in the closing days of the war. But, based on his own original script, the film goes on another Obayashi imaginative flight, with three young men traveling in time from an old theater in Onomichi — the director’s seaside hometown in Hiroshima Prefecture and the setting for many of his films — to Hiroshima on the eve of the atomic bombing.
As it tells their story, the film slips back and forth between the grim real world of 1945 and a realm of colorful fantasy complete with song-and-dance numbers, though its anti-war message carries loud and clear. Also, Obayashi made this 179-minute opus while fighting terminal cancer, though it has been two years since he got the diagnosis and was given three months live.
“Labyrinth of Cinema” is being screened on Nov. 1 as part of a retrospective of the director’s work at this year’s Tokyo International Film Festival. Perhaps not coincidentally, the Japanese government named Obayashi a Person of Cultural Merit, one of Japan’s highest cultural honors, on Oct. 29.
I last interviewed Obayashi in 2016 before he came to the Udine Far East Film Festival in Italy, where I had programmed a selection of his films. He told me about his childhood, his early days as a director and his philosophy of cinema in the perfectly paragraphed monologues of the born raconteur. I barely had to ask a question — or rather give him a verbal cue — to set him off and running.
When I meet him this time at his company’s office in Seijo, a Tokyo suburb that has long been a film production center, he is thinner, smaller and frailer than I remember — but his mind and spirit are still very much intact.
In a voice hoarse but firm, the 81-year-old proclaims himself “100 percent satisfied” with his film, which he shot in the summer of 2018 and spent much of the past year editing.
“I never worried if I could finish it,” he says. “Of course I had a technical editor to help with the CG and the blue screen.”
I remark on the film’s energy, which contrasts vividly with the quieter late-career war films of directors like Akira Kurosawa (“Rhapsody in August,” 1991) and Kazuo Kuroki (“The Face of Jizo,” 2004).
“Kurosawa wanted to be an artist, but became a director,” Obayashi says, “and artists paint alone, so Kurosawa always wanted to make films by himself. But he knew he’d go hungry if he tried that, so he had no choice but to join (film company) Toho and make films thinking of Toho’s business. He had little freedom that way.”
As an example, Obayashi cites “Seven Samurai,” the 1954 men-on-a-mission classic that became Kurosawa’s best-known film abroad.
“That wasn’t really a Kurosawa film,” he says. “Kurosawa wanted to make something about the toughness of the peasants, but he ended up making a film about the toughness of the samurai.” The reason, Obayashi says, is that Toho forced him to cut it and “so the film became the opposite of what he had intended. But it did well at the box office and made him famous around the world.”
A similar case, Obayashi continues, was the 1961 Kurosawa smash hit, “Yojimbo.”
“Back then we movie fans said it was a film Kurosawa had made to earn money,” he says. But its success, he adds, enabled Kurosawa’s production company to make the very uncommercial “Dodes’ka-den” (1970), a film about shantytown residents focusing on a mentally challenged boy.
“(Kurosawa) told me ‘How do you like that, Obayashi? I did it the way you always do it and shot it in 28 days,” Obayashi says.
With “Dodes’ka-den” and his late-career films “Dreams” (1990), “Rhapsody in August” (1991) and “Madadayo” (1993), Kurosawa was “finally able to film exactly as he wanted,” Obayashi says.
“He told me, ‘The films may be small, but the philosophy and ideas are mine.’ Then he shot (‘Rhapsody in August’) about the Nagasaki atomic bombing,” Obayashi says. “That was financed from the pocket money of his production company. So he was free. He told me, ‘Obayashi, you can understand my situation. I can shoot my films with my own money now. That’s the way you’ve been doing it since the beginning. I think that’s great. So now we’re both amateurs. And being an amateur is fine. I shoot just like a painter paints. I shoot according to my own philosophy.'”
Obayashi says that Kurosawa was an “excitable person, an emotional person,” but that his best film was “Ran” (1985), starring the relatively unexcitable Tatsuya Nakadai.
“Nakadai was the actor best suited for Kurosawa,” Obayashi says. “Nakadai never called himself a star; he always said, ‘I’m an actor.’ He was a stage star, not a movie star. By using (Toshiro) Mifune, Kurosawa’s movies went in a different, emotional direction. But Nakadai was Kurosawa’s stage actor.”
Did Obayashi have a similar “best actor”?
“When I was still young, my job was to raise newcomers, people I had met for the first time, into stars,” he says. “I also used a lot of veterans in sub-stories in what would become their last movie.”
Obayashi says he and Kurosawa had this conversation when he was about 50 and Kurosawa was about 80.
“He said, ‘I’ll keep making movies this way for another 10 years and you can take up where I left off and keep going for another 20. And if you can’t do it, my son or grandson or great-grandson can. Wars can start right away, but it takes 400 years to make peace.’ That’s been my theme, my watchword, ever since,” Obayashi says. “Kurosawa said, ‘Films can’t change history, but they can change the history of the future. So keep making films.’ And I’ve been trying to do that for these past 10 years.”
But why keep making films about a war seven decades in the past, a war that many Japanese filmmakers have already addressed? The reason, Obayashi says, is that the current younger generation of Japanese “knows nothing about the war,” the Hiroshima bombing included.
“It’s our responsibility to communicate the reality of the war to young people who never experienced it,” he says.
But Obayashi’s methods of conveying that reality are unconventionally free, I suggest. And that freedom extends to all his films.
“For me ‘freedom’ is doing something that no one has done before. To do something no one else has done before … is important. For us filmmakers it’s the most important thing of all,” Obayashi says. “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.”
At the same time, Obayashi now feels he has a responsibility and duty, “since I’m an old man who knows what war is.”
“That’s the only reason I’m living in this world and making movies,” he says. “I just try hard and honestly to express myself freely without telling lies. That’s my movie life.”
Nobuhiko Obayashi’s “Labyrinth of Cinema” will be screened at Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills on Nov. 1 as part of the Tokyo International Film Festival. For more information, visit 2019.tiff-jp.net/en.