After an almost-2 month break, Japanese Film Insight is back. Both a lot and very little has happened in the Japanese film industry since my last column. The industry, both in terms of production and release schedules, has been heavily impacted by the current global crisis, and the return of cinemas has only proven that things don’t look set to return to normal anytime soon. The industry is entering uncharted territory, and it’s difficult to predict what comes next. On the same day as my last column was released, the news of the tragic passing of film director Nobuhiko Obayashi sent shockwaves through the industry.
On what was ironically the date his most recent film, Labyrinth of Cinema, was originally set to be released prior to its delay due to COVID-19, April 10th, the director succumbed to a cancer diagnosis which 3 years ago had supposedly left him with just months left to live.
Known for utilizing the medium of film to create truly unique experiences that challenged the conventions of film structure, with this column I’d like to look back on the career of a one-of-a-kind director.
Looking Back On An Illustrious Career
Over the course of an over-50-year career that spans his early 8mm and 16mm experimental films into his TV commercials, his big break with the internationally-renowned surrealist film House, leading to his war trilogy over the last decade, the director’s embrace of the experimental permeates throughout all of his work. Through deliberately-extreme and unusual imagery and filmmaking techniques designed to surprise and jolt the viewer into a constant state of awareness by refusing to fall into a rhythm, Nobuhiko Obayashi was successful at expanding what was possible within the medium of film itself.
Having given up on a potential career in medicine to instead go to Seijo University and invest in the arts, Obayashi used his time at the university to experiment with filmmaking on 8mm and 16mm print, eventually leading to the production of 8 short films throughout the 1960s that each used whatever film techniques were on offer at the time to confuse the senses with surrealist avant-garde filmmaking which set the tone for the director’s entire career to follow.
To quote the title of perhaps the best of these experimental shorts, from 1966, these shorts hold meaning not necessarily through the stories they tell but the ‘Emotion’ they extract from the viewer, even if that emotion is anger or frustration at the work presented. Using this short as an example, Obayashi employs almost every camera making trick possible when working on film prints of the time. Intense color grading, frantic jump-cut editing with intent less to move from scene to scene but to distort the scene itself, film distortion and more each liberally applied to every scene to assault the senses from all directions.
It would be difficult to argue that this short holds much of a story, or at least a sensical one, but the story roughly follows the possibly-real, possibly-imaginary life of a young girl moving from a remote village to the big city who falls in love with a vampire. Storylines dart around and cut between one another to the point that it makes the narrative a near-impossibility to follow, but what this allows is for the audience to instead take in each individual scene as a condensed emotion in its purest form. The unpredictability of the film is perhaps its greatest asset as it brings our relationship with the world into question, even if the work feels messy and lacks the guidance needed to take all these neat experimental flairs and turn them into a satisfying whole.
That came later with perhaps his most well-known film, House. Unlike his earlier shorts, this has a coherent story to follow (a coming-of-age story featuring a group of schoolgirls referred to solely by nicknames who visit Gorgeous’ aunt’s home for the summer which turns out to be haunted), yet this through-line of a story is perhaps the most standard element of this surrealist masterpiece. Similar to Emotion, director Nobuhiko Obayashi is more interested in the experience of the film than the story itself, with the narrative instead serving as a vehicle for avant-garde expressionism with a mainstream budget.
While the film’s most unearthly moments are reserved for the demon’s torturing of the schoolgirls upon their arrival at their aunt’s remote home, the film immediately gives off a sense of unease right from its outright-creepy opening credits. A reference to his short film roots in the opening moments immediately sets the film apart from its mainstream contemporaries as the girls engage in their own photoshoot in their school’s science lab, ironically acting as a moment that catches one of their final moments of normality before their adventure begins.
Considering the film’s conception as a summer blockbuster idea intended to rival Jaws that came from the nightmares of Obayashi’s own daughter, the film imbues a dream-like unreality in almost every scene. There’s an overly-warm perfectionism to the lives of our characters in the opening scenes which is only exaggerated by the invasive use of visual effects clearly inspired by the director’s work over the previous decade in TV advertising. What makes this invasive artificiality to the film work is the constant reminder the audience is given of the camera’s existence through transformative scene transitions and obstructive camera framing.
Through this, the film can utilize the concept of cinema and the tools at Obayashi’s disposal to create a mood of visual horror and obscenity which only works when the audience is aware that the media they’re watching isn’t a representation of reality. This is most obvious through the film’s prominent use of primitive green screen effects that even at the time would be viewed as obviously fake, giving the entire film a staged feeling that allows the unrealistic to be brushed aside. At times you can quite obviously see the painted set backgrounds in their entirety, revealing a new setting behind it. The theatrics of film are used to draw the audience into its quirky world.
This is sometimes simply used for visual effect and minor gags, but when the nightmares of the house itself begin to unfold it only intensifies the unease and terror felt at the events unfolding around these girls. Very obvious trickery and green screen usage may make it clear to the audience the trickery that goes behind the effects used to show the piano eating Melody’s fingers, yet it doesn’t make the disturbing horror of losing your fingers in such a way any less terrifying (and equally humorous).
This deliberate fakery causes the movie’s horror to manifest in different ways. The exaggerated phony nature of the production plays into the psychedelic horror of a nightmare perfectly. Just because you can recognize now how silly those fears were doesn’t make the monster hiding under your bed any less real to your 10-year old self.
This movie propelled Nobuhiko Obayashi’s film career in spite of the poor critical reception the film initially received upon its release, thanks in part to a strong box office performance. His work with mainstream idols in the 1980s with films like The Girl Who Conquered Time still retained some of this flair found in House, albeit remarkably more restrained in many areas. A prolific career followed before an embrace of his experimental roots came about through inspiration given to him through the horrors of the 3.11 earthquake.
In an interview with MUBI in relation to his 2017 film Hanagatami (which I’ll talk about in more detail shortly), Obayashi noted that the earthquake was a ‘do-over’ for those who experienced losing the war, and the creation of his World War II-themed trilogy of films, Casting Blossoms to the Sky, Seven Weeks and Hanagatami, came from this. These films each capture experiences and places in relation to or during the war as he continued to experiment with his approach to time and space through the lens of the horrors that war can bring.
While he was able to complete one more film following this trilogy in the form of Labyrinth of Cinema, despite being given a stage-four terminal lung cancer diagnosis that was predicted to kill him before Hanagatami’s release, this movie was unable to release in cinemas on a wider scale before his death on April 10th. The film did, however, receive its world premiere at the most recent Tokyo International Film Festival, where it was regarded as one of his best works, a culmination of his life’s work as an auteur.
Nobuhiko Obayashi left behind a career spanning half a century making films that challenged what was conventionally considered possible within the medium of film. Rather than simply telling a story, Obayashi sought to use the tools at his disposal to expand what was possible within the media and to capture an emotion, whether that be terror, love, or the horrors of war. His voice and style were one of a kind, and he will be sorely missed.
Film Flashback: Hanagatami (花筐, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 2017)
For all Nobuhiko Obayashi may have insisted that he didn’t intend to create anti-war films and simply didn’t like war, it’s difficult not to look at a film like Hanagatami and come to such a conclusion. Without a single shot being fired by any character within the movie, Obayashi succeeded in creating a film condemning war on all sides and the failures war’s necessity represents.
Framed as a flashback on his life by protagonist Toshihiko Sakakiyama, the film is set in 1941 Japan as the country is set to go to war with the US. In the coastal town of Karatsu, Toshihiko befriends the eclectic group of young people who live in the town before war rips them, their friendship, and their lives apart.
Here, Obayashi’s use of green-screen film techniques and artificial set design come together to enhance the joy of youth when juxtaposed with the physical and symbolic destruction war brings about. What to some directors is simply visual flare is to Obayashi a tool to make the audience reconsider reality and fiction, our relationship with an idealized reality, and the tragedy which comes with it.
Nothing is quite right here. The actors are clearly too old to be playing the roles of schoolchildren, many scenes in the school green screen even much of the classroom itself in order to layer the actors away from those around them, while every setting for the film has an air of unreality to it, whether that be through the idealization of the seasons through the opening scene’s abundance of sakura petals, the layering of environments on top of each other through green-screen to create new areas or the frantic cuts in perspective.
There’s a nihilistic view of war as something concocted by those in power that permeates through the work, and a strong view that those with the power will never need to face the consequences that come about as a result of this hunger for battle. By casting older actors, you feel these characters are wise beyond their years as they understand this idealistic youth they live through is tinged by the death that goes on in their country’s name that they’ll inevitably be forced to assist in.
As scenes of their childhood are contrasted to pale swarms of children marching to their death and scarecrows dressed foolishly in military garb, the overriding emotion is anger. Even if this childhood is framed with a glossy idealism thanks to the green screen, it represents how youth is often represented, and a youth that will soon be snatched away by death before their time.
Hanagatami is an exploration of youth lost and a generation forgotten. Just as quick as the youth are enlisted and enslaved by a military machine, the war is over and those who lost everything in the shape of their senseless battle are now left to readjust to a society that ripped them from their home before leaving them behind.
Yet what elevates Nobuhiko Obayashi’s work is the personal nature of the film. Although Hanagatami is an adaptation of Kazuo Dan’s 1937 novel of the same name about a group of youths set to be ripped apart by the pain of war, this adaptation alters the story by setting it during World War II, after the book’s initial publication. Further altering its perspective is an address to the camera that bookends the film on each side, told by the main character while clearly acting as a stand-in for Obayashi himself. Having been 7 years old when the war came to an end, he felt the effects of being raised within a militant education system only to feel lost by the sudden national shift to pacifism brought about through surrender. The abandonment felt by the characters losing their youth to war, in particular Toshihiko’s struggles, ring true for Obayashi.
This bookending serves as a commentary on the novel’s existence while tying the events of World War II to the modern-day. While leaving itself open to interpretation, these moments contemplate what these characters sacrificed while tying itself to Obayashi’s own life and the lives of a younger generation similarly ripped from their childhood as a result of the 3.11 earthquake and financial unrest.
The best works of cinema are ones which can start by discussing one thing and by the end are all-consuming, commenting on every facet of society through the story and imagery it produces. Nobuhiko Obayashi’s Hanagatami is one such film, and over the course of 3 hours, this movie about the horrors of war evolves into a film that considers society’s approach to the self versus the other, class and social barriers, and the fears that the mistakes of the past are set to be repeated.
Through the director’s liberal use of visual effects, the director succeeded at blurring the lines between fiction and reality in a way that forces the viewer to reconsider their own existence in relation to the events on screen. While much of Obayashi’s best work succeeded in this ideal, Hanagatami perhaps achieves this best, and this shining example expands the scope of what is possible within the medium of cinema.
Hanagatami will receive a Blu Ray release in the UK via Third Window Films on July 6th.
That brings us to the end of the latest ‘Your Japanese Film Insight’. For a complete list of films recommended as part of this column, you can find them compiled together in a list, with links to their respective articles, over on Letterboxd.
Are there any films you want to see discussed in the future? Contact me directly on Twitter @socialanigirl!