Nobuhiko Obayashi: a life spent working among the greats of Japanese cinema

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An interview with Nobuhiko Obayashi is like an interview with no one else, and I say that as someone who has made hundreds of them.

A pioneering experimental filmmaker in the 1960s who became a much-sought-after director of television commercials in the 1970s and, in partnership with maverick producer Haruki Kadokawa, director of films starring popular female idols in the 1980s, Obayashi would appear to be a classic example of the movie prodigy going commercial. But, dig deeper into his filmography, starting with his feature debut in 1977 – the wacky and wonderful horror-fantasy “House” – and you’ll find a fiercely independent guy who even took on work assignments for hire. in directions distinctly his own.

In his most recent film, “Cinema Labyrinth,” Obayashi tackles a common theme in post-war Japanese cinema: Japan at the end of the war. But, based on its own original script, the film pursues another imaginative flight from Obayashi, with three young men traveling back in time to an old theater in Onomichi – the director’s hometown in Hiroshima Prefecture and the setting. of several of his films – in Hiroshima on the eve of the atomic bombardment.

In telling their story, the film slides between the real, spooky world of 1945 and a kingdom of colorful fantasy with song and dance numbers, though its anti-war message is loud and clear. Additionally, Obayashi made this 179-minute installment while battling terminal cancer, although it has been two years since he was diagnosed and received three months live.

“Labyrinth of Cinema” is screened on November 1 as part of a retrospective of the director’s work at this year’s Tokyo International Film Festival. It may not be a coincidence that the Japanese government named Obayashi a Person of Cultural Merit, one of Japan’s highest cultural honors, on October 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 beginnings as a director and his philosophy of cinema in the perfectly articulated monologues of the born storyteller. I barely had to ask a question – or rather give it a verbal signal – to get it going.

When I meet him this time at his company offices in Seijo, a suburb of Tokyo that has long been a center of film production, he is thinner, smaller and more frail than I remember, but his mind and spirit are still intact.

In a hoarse but firm voice, the 81-year-old proclaims himself “100% satisfied” with his film, which he shot in the summer of 2018 and that he has spent a good part of the past year at. Assembly.

“I never worried that I could finish it,” he says. “Of course I had a tech editor to help me with the CG and the blue screen.”

I notice the energy of the film, which stands in stark contrast to the quieter late-career war films of directors like Akira Kurosawa (“Rhapsody in August”, 1991) and Kazuo Kuroki (“Jizo’s Face”, 2004).

“Kurosawa wanted to be an artist, but became a director,” says Obayashi, “and artists paint on their own, so Kurosawa always wanted to make films on his own. But he knew he would be hungry if he tried this, so he had no choice but to join (the movie company) Toho and make movies with Toho’s business in mind. He had little freedom that way.

As an example, Obayashi cites “Seven Samurai,” the 1954 classic for men on a mission that became Kurosawa’s best-known film overseas.

“It wasn’t really a Kurosawa movie,” he says. “Kurosawa wanted to do something about the harshness of the peasants, but he ended up making a film about the harshness of the samurai.” The reason, Obayashi says, is that Toho forced him to cut it and “so the movie turned out to be the opposite of what he planned.” But it did well at the box office and made him famous around the world.

A similar case, Obayashi continues, was Kurosawa’s 1961 hit, “Yojimbo”.

“Back then, we moviegoers said it was a movie Kurosawa made to make money,” he says. But its success, he adds, enabled the Kurosawa production company to make the very uncommercial “Dodes’ka-den” (1970), a slum dwellers film centered on a boy suffering from a mental handicap.

“(Kurosawa) said to me ‘How do you like that, Obayashi? I did it like you always do 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 shoot exactly as he wanted. Said Obayashi.

“He said to me: ‘The films may be small, but the philosophy and the ideas are mine.’ Then he shot (“Rhapsody in August”) on the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, ”Obayashi says. “It was funded with pocket money from his production company. He was therefore free. He said, ‘Obayashi, you can understand my situation. I can shoot my films with my own money now. This is how you do it from the start. I think it’s awesome. So now we’re both amateurs. And being an amateur is good. I photograph like a painted painter. I shoot according to my own philosophy.

Obayashi says Kurosawa was an “excitable person, an emotional person,” but his best film was “Ran” (1985), starring the relatively un-excitable Tatsuya Nakadai.

“Nakadai was the best suited actor for Kurosawa,” Obayashi says. “Nakadai never called himself a star; he always said: “I am an actor. He was a stage star, not a movie star. Using (Toshiro) Mifune, Kurosawa’s films went in a different emotional direction. But Nakadai was the Kurosawa theater actor.

Did Obayashi have a similar “best actor”?

“When I was still young, my job was to elevate newcomers, people I first met, to stars,” he says. “I also used a lot of veterans in sub-stories in what was to become their last film.”

Obayashi says that he and Kurosawa had this conversation when he was around 50 and Kurosawa was around 80.

He said, ‘I’ll keep making movies this way for another 10 years and you can pick up where I left off and continue for another 20. And if you can’t do it, my son, my grandson, or my great-grandson can. Wars can start right away, but it takes 400 years to make peace. It’s been my theme, my watchword ever since, ”Obayashi said. Kurosawa said, “Movies cannot change history, but they can change the history of the future. So keep making movies. And I have been trying to do this for 10 years.

But why keep making films about a war seven decades ago, a war that many Japanese filmmakers have already addressed? The reason, says Obayashi, is that the current young generation of Japanese “know nothing about war,” including the bombing of Hiroshima.

“It is our responsibility to communicate the reality of war to young people who have never experienced it,” he said.

But Obayashi’s methods of conveying this reality are unconventional, I suggest. And this freedom extends to all of his films.

“For me, ‘freedom’ is doing something that no one has done before. Doing something that no one else has done before… is important. For us filmmakers this is the most important thing of all, ”says Obayashi. “Some say that because movies have a long history and everyone all over the world has made them, everything has already been done. There is nothing more to do. I say this is nonsense. There are still many things that have never been done.

At the same time, Obayashi now feels invested with a responsibility and a duty, “since I am an old man who knows what war is”.

“It’s the only reason I live in this world and make movies,” he says. “I just try to express myself freely and honestly without lying. It’s my life at the movies.

Nobuhiko Obayashi’s “Labyrinth of Cinema” will be screened at Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills on November 1 as part of the Tokyo International Film Festival. For more information visit 2019.tiff-jp.net/en.

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