Film

For filmmaker Nobuhiko Obayashi, freedom was the most important thing of all

by Mark Schilling

Contributing writer

Director Nobuhiko Obayashi, who died on April 10 at the age of 82, was incredibly prolific during his six-decade career. A pioneering experimental filmmaker in the 1960s, he went on to direct 2,000 television commercials (by his own estimate; no exact count exists) and 43 theatrical features.

In reviewing his films for The Japan Times and curating a selection of his films for the 2016 edition of the Udine Far East Film Festival, I found Obayashi to be a filmmaker who had an outsized talent and an unfettered imagination, coupled with a fervent pacifism. As a boy in Onomichi, a port city on the Seto Inland Sea where he shot many of his films, he had experienced World War II and its aftermath and, especially in his later years, expressed anti-war messages in his films.

Even working under corporate bosses like the giant Dentsu advertising agency, or with big-name producers such as Haruki Kadokawa, Obayashi put his personal stamp on everything while thumbing his nose at convention. In a film industry that was governed by strict hierarchies and rigid ideas on how to make “proper” films, when he was starting out, Obayashi’s watchword was “freedom,” and his “anything goes” experimentation was seen as amateurish at best by the powers that be.

When he went to Toho Studios to make his first feature, “House,” a sci-fi/horror about a house that devours its inhabitants (an idea he got from his daughter), senior director Hideo Onchi met him at the entrance and, as Obayashi told me in a 2016 interview, said, “Obayashi-san, please wreck our studio just this once.” “I laugh about it now,” Obayashi added, “but it was that kind of era.”

“House,” with its phantasmagoric imagery and delirious fantasy, was a hit upon its release in 1977 and, decades later, became a cult sensation overseas. However, it didn’t make Obayashi a critical darling or industry powerhouse; reviews were scathing, while Toho producers, he told me, “weren’t happy that a film like ‘House’ was successful, since they couldn’t understand it.”

Nonetheless, once he got his start, the filmmaker never looked back. Partnering with Kadokawa, Obayashi made hit films with sci-fi/fantasy storylines and mostly unknown actresses, including “Exchange Students” (teen boy and girl switch bodies), “School in the Crosshairs” (teenage girl has psychic powers) and “The Girl Who Leapt Through Time” (teenage girl travels through time). In these and other films, Obayashi created worlds — or rather charmingly surreal dreamscapes — utterly his own.

He went on to make serious, topical films such as 1989’s “Beijing Watermelon,” a drama based on a true story in which a Japanese grocer takes Chinese students under his wing. (In my review for The Japan Times, I called it “one of the most original, moving films in recent memory.”)

But when Obayashi came to the Udine Far East Film Festival in 2016 with his family, he was still a puckish free spirit, waving one hand in his trademark “I love you” gesture at every opportunity. And, when he spoke at a public Q&A I moderated, he was a captivating raconteur. One story was about his visit to the Italian Liberation Day celebrations in the town center. There, he met an elderly woman who, like Obayashi, had experienced World War II. Overcoming the language barrier, he said, they shared the hope that war and its horrors would never come again. I thought that, of all the dozens of Japanese guests we had hosted at the festival, only Obayashi had made such instant, heartfelt connections with the people around him, complete strangers included.

Soon after, he was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer and given only three months to live. Undaunted, he went on to direct two war-themed films — 2017’s “Hanagatami” and 2019’s “Labyrinth of Cinema” — that combined an exuberant vitality and volcanic creativity with an urgent witnessing of war’s madness and destruction.

When I met him for an interview in October of last year, he was thinner and frailer, but his views on filmmaking were as passionate as ever. “For me, ‘freedom’ is doing something that no one has done before,” he told me. “To do something no one else has done before is important. For us filmmakers it’s the most important thing of all.”

Read Mark Schilling’s October 2019 interview with Nobuhiko Obayashi here.

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