Nobuhiko Obayashi is best-known outside his native Japan for his 1977 debut feature House, which achieved cult status thanks to a theatrical run and home video release by the Criterion Collection in 2010. While well-intentioned, this move was also a huge disservice to Obayashi. House is indeed marvelous, but both its promotion and reception focused on surface-level gonzo weirdness, willfully ignoring any deeper reading or appreciation of the film or its director. This belies the depth of Obayashi’s career. He made some 40 features over a period of 60 years, to say nothing of his numerous short films, television and advertising work, or his scholarship — and none of that has been officially released in the United States, by Criterion or any other boutique label.
In response to this mischaracterization and neglect, over the past few years, a select group of fans have taken to championing Obayashi on social media, increasing his renown within the US realm of cinephilia. When he died at 82 in April of this year, after a long battle with lung cancer, the appreciation of his work was far more multifaceted and representative than it might have been just three or four years before. To commemorate Obayashi’s passing, the 2020 edition of JAPAN CUTS is presenting his final film, the mammoth three-hour Labyrinth of Cinema (2019), along with a documentary about him and his wife/producer Kyoko Hanyu, as well as hosting a number of online conversations about his work.
Labyrinth of Cinema is a fitting capstone to Obayashi’s filmography, a riotous tour through various manifestations of Japanese war cinema as seen by four teenagers, who exist both in the audience of a theater’s last picture show and as a host of avatars within the films. They shift between a dizzying number of genres while attempting to outrun enemies who are the manifestations of histories of violence and destruction. To understand what this summative work is summing up, look back at Obayashi’s sizable oeuvre. This overview cannot be in any way exhaustive, but some of his highlights provide a vital lens into his consistent concerns.
Foremost among these interests is the vitality and dreams of youth. The vast majority of Obayashi’s films prominently feature young people, from the anarchic schoolchildren of Bound for the Fields, the Mountains, and the Seacoast (1986) to the biker gangs of His Motorbike, Her Island (1986), frequently set in the sun-kissed bliss of summer. Even a film like Beijing Watermelon (1989), which focuses primarily on a shopkeeper who befriends successive classes of Chinese students studying abroad, is careful to ensure that the students come alive as individuals in their own right, and are never merely symbols for a bright future or a far-off culture.
Not that Obayashi is resistant to the symbolism of youth. His penultimate feature Hanagatami (2017), a long-gestating passion project, follows teenagers dreading an encroaching World War II. In this and Labyrinth, young people stand in for a certain idea of purity and optimism, innocence threatened by the passage of time and the ravages of war. The degree to which this innocence is lost varies from film to film. In perhaps his most straightforwardly optimistic work, The Rocking Horsemen (1992), a band of rock-obsessed high schoolers is dismantled upon their graduation, but this is not treated with the thudding strife of traditional musical dramas. The boys know that their performance at a school festival will be their only truly significant show, and simply resolve to enjoy it, playing their hearts out with abandon.
That kind of freedom finds its perfect correlative in Obayashi’s singular, eye-popping sense of form. His later works are full of odd green screen effects and discomfiting, cramped close-ups, the better to convey a bracing haze of unreality. In Labyrinth of Cinema, these techniques are joined by an overload of text boxes and obvious digital compositing. The result renders the film’s recreations of approximately a dozen different styles of filmmaking deliberately uncanny, a gap which points to its level of metatext. Past, present, and future are indistinguishable inside the projector. But such touches are present even in Oabayashi’s less extravagant movies. The intensely disruptive edits of Labyrinth appear in the otherwise more conventional Rocking Horsemen. Bound for the Fields features a gorgeous use of grainy black and white that evokes 1930s Japanese studio filmmaking. His Motorbike, Her Island will switch with abandon between black and white and color, with most of the frame rendered in monochrome save the center.
This willingness to experiment stems in large part from Obayashi’s deep humanism. Amid the excess and chaos of Labyrinth of Cinema, a stark, passionate message emerges: “a movie can change the future, if not the past.” Obayashi clearly believes in the healing potential of cinema, its capability to represent not just Japan but all humanity at its most harmonious, and to argue against war and self-destruction. All of his films carry this immovable truth, whether it’s in the youth uprising of Bound for the Fields, the ebullience of music-making in The Rocking Horsemen, or the complicated, uncertain transcendence of Hanagatami. And the most powerful of these comes in Beijing Watermelon, in circumstances forced by reality. After plans to film the finale in Beijing were dashed by Tiananmen Square, Obayashi shot it on a series of sets in Tokyo, repeatedly breaking the fourth wall and characterizing the events as a dream of China — never openly stating the reason, but making clear his solidarity with the students and their struggle. Over his long career, Obayashi’s conviction never flagged, nor did his ability to give life to his ideas, as in Labyrinth of Cinema. Few directors deserve rediscovery as much as he does.
Labyrinth of Cinema is available to stream as part of JAPAN CUTS through July 30. House is available to stream on various platforms. Sada (1998) and the short film Emotion (1966) are available via Criterion Channel.