Japanese author Nobuhiko Obayashi’s psychedelic cinema

Writer James Balmont selects five must-see films by Nobuhiko Obayashi, one of Japan’s most innovative and fantastic films cult filmmakers

Japanese cinema has always had a penchant for the bizarre. Take a look at the “film rose” softcore industry that has flourished in adult-only theaters since the 1960s, or how directors like Seijun Suzuki crime merged with hyper stylized visuals at the heart of the Japanese New Wave. A giant nuclear-powered dinosaur (Godzilla) remains one of the country’s greatest cinema icons. And then there is Nobuhiko Obayashi, director of one of the most absurd cult horror films of all time, and a maverick visionary in a league of his own.

A pioneer of avant-garde shorts in the ’60s and’ 70s, Obayashi did some 2,000 commercials (by his own estimate) early in his career, establishing an odd visual style that makes commercials for Bill’s Suntory whiskey. Murray in Lost in translation seem subtle in comparison. They remain a sight to be seen to this day: the masculine deodorant was featured with zoomed-in close-ups, porno-esque postures, and gun shots; the pants were modeled on a Wild West film set, with Japanese cowboys strolling the living rooms showing off their pants; while the frozen dessert was the focus of a fantastic rainbow-colored clip with cosmic special effects. So when the Toho film studio (home of Godzilla) had big box office problems in the mid-1970s, they decided to go after the man who turned advertising into art, in the hopes that he could bring audiences back to their theaters. with his first feature film.

Obayashi’s beginnings in 1977 lodge shattered the brief, combining kitsch, collage-style visuals, stop-motion animation, and the kind of quick edit usually reserved for advertising flashy new products. A stunning multimedia spectacle, the film was derided or ignored by critics but turned into an unexpected commercial success – setting Obayashi up for a career as a prolific feature film director in the decades that followed.

And while he would largely ease the visual chaos for the more conventional youth and fantasy productions that followed in the ’80s and’ 90s, the director would arguably reach his creative peak in the 21st century, when he returned to the visual style. zany who had launched his career. These mid-’10s films are said to be philosophical and spooky productions, each carrying a passionate anti-war sentiment. These will be his last works.

In 2021, 18 months after his death, three of the latter films are now receiving a physical release outside of Japan for the first time, via Third Window Films’ new Blu-ray box set. (The director’s last feature film Cinema labyrinth, meanwhile, received a physical release last month via Crescendo House). To mark the occasion, Another one looks back at the inimitable works of one of Japan’s singular creative visionaries – the luminaire himself, Nobuhiko Obayashi.

Emotion, 1966

In the mid-1960s, Obayashi made an experimental short film filled with avant-garde styles that would define so many of his later cult works. And while the film is ostensibly the story of a young girl who leaves her seaside house for the city, to fall in love with a mysterious man who could be a vampire, EmotionThe real draw to ‘s is its deconstruction of the cinematic medium itself.

Black and white images are made kaleidoscopic with the use of vibrant yellow, green and sepia color filters. Raw stop-motion sequences and animated sections transform the original characters into otherworldly entities. And the schizophrenic montage and skipped cuts transform 39 minutes of weirdness into a strobe-like visual fantasy. The effect of disorientation is only amplified by a narrator who switches from English to Japanese to French without warning, such as kanji Headings with words like “Jellyfish”, “Steam Whistle” and “Dragonfly” flash on the screen as if they were items on a shopping list. Add in cigarette-smoking cowboys and floating red umbrellas, and you’ve got a recipe for what an IMDb reviewer described in 2020 as “incomprehensible visual gibberish” – a big compliment to OTT style and form. of the movie.

lodge, 1977

In an attempt to describe the chaos of lodge in a few sentences is as ridiculous a task as the movie itself, but in short, Obayashi’s feature debut is one of the most eccentric haunted house tales ever made. A simple plot is about seven students (named Fantasy, Angel, Melody, Prof, Sweetie, Mac, and Kung fu, in an apparent nod to Snow White’s Seven Dwarfs) who find themselves in a house full of floating heads, of hand munching pianos and skeletons. Not surprisingly, a lot of problems ensue. But the real joys of this multimedia show lie in its bizarre, hyperactive fusion of rotoscoping, action reruns, garish colors, and cheesy music.. This all amounts to something like a cross between Suspiria, The Evil Dead and Scooby doo.

This deeply eccentric project was Obayashi’s response to being asked to do Japan’s response to Jaws, after Toho Studios noted the popularity of Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster overseas. The director wisely rejected the idea and instead adapted a concept presented by his 13-year-old daughter, Chigumi, who is credited as the film’s author. The film is arguably Obayashi’s best-known work in the West, after two screenings at the Asian Film Festival in New York in 2009, setting it on the path to becoming an enduring cult sensation.

Throwing flowers to the sky, 2012

Throwing flowers to the sky marked Obayashi’s return to the experimental style and form of his early works after decades of working as a rental director. And while this nearly three-hour project is packed with vivid color, storybook screen erasures and hyperrealistic imagery, the finished film presents a significant thematic deviation from the controlled chaos of works like Housing.

The title of the film refers to the fireworks that take place each year in Nagaoka, Niigata, at 10:30 p.m. on August 1 – the same time that in 1945 the city was reduced to rubble by an army B29 bomber. American, killing 1,470 people. With the film arriving just a year after the catastrophic Tohoku earthquake and tsunami in 2011, the tone of Throwing flowers to the sky is therefore much more serious and thoughtful, with colorful collages contrasting with the harrowing accounts of the firebombing during WWII. The result is a compelling epic that is part of a history lesson, art project, and play, interspersed with melodrama and haunting visual style.

Much of the film’s emotion is expressed through the nostalgic orchestral score, full of rising strings and melancholy melodies on the piano. And while most of the music is written by Kosuke Yamashita, the main catchy theme is immediately recognizable as the work of Joe Hisaishi; the eight-time Oscar-winning Japanese composer best known for his long-standing collaborations with the director Takeshi Kitano and Hayao Miyazaki of Studio Ghibli.

Hanagatami, 2017

Hanagatami was originally proposed to be Obayashi’s first feature film, but after the screenplay was rejected, it lay dormant for 40 years. It wasn’t until 2016, after the director was diagnosed with terminal cancer and only had a few months left to live, that he finally put his passion project into production, raising funds. in the street to help increase his budget.

The film is a heartfelt chronicle that recalls Obayashi’s own experiences of WWII as a child and his upbringing in the years after Japan’s surrender. Themes of romance, hope, anxiety and loss combine in a story about the life of young Japanese people in an idyllic rural village that is inevitably shaped by the outbreak of war overseas. And if there is no shortage of unforgettable visuals (nude riding by the edge of a moonlit ocean, models of giant fish parading in a street festival), they are delivered here in a thoughtful atmosphere, underpinned by the repeated refrain of the dismal. by Bach Cello Suite No. 1 Prelude.

Cinema labyrinth, 2019

While lodge has been described as an advertisement for the cinema itself, 2019’s Cinema labyrinth bills itself as “a film to explore cinematic literature”, stating that “it is time to revisit history so that we can build a better future”. The resulting triumph – newly available in physical media via the boutique label Crescendo House – is a dazzling rumination on Japanese history and a passionate love letter to the cinema; a megalithic swan song for the director, who died less than six months after the film’s premiere in Japan.

Cinema labyrinth is the story of three time-leaping filmmakers who attend the last sleepless night at a cinema in Onomichi, Hiroshima (Obayashi’s hometown). Once that begins, they embark on a larger-than-life journey through Hollywood musicals, samurai movies, and brutal world wars after being sucked into the world of cinema itself. During their travels, they encounter a Tarzan swinging from the vine, a gravity-defying koi carp, legendary Japanese filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu, and a superstar actor. Tadanobu Asano, who makes an action-packed entry as a pistol-wielding war lieutenant. They all combine like a tapestry of references to classic Japanese cinema, along with Obayashi’s own works, flooding the screen in an explosion of vibrant fantasy.

The film ends on a powerful, dark note, as Obayashi himself, physically damaged by cancer treatment, is shown playing an out of tune piano in one of the last shots. In iconic Obayashi style, the images contrast with those of something totally surreal – a colossal baby floating through the Kubrick-style solar system. 2001: The Space Odyssey. The message persists long after the credits roll: although the director is gone, he will live forever through his films.

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