The largest retrospective of Nobuhiko Obayashi’s work in the United States kicks off tonight at The Japan Society with a screening of House (Hausu). Hausu is Obayashi’s best known work in the US, and probably the only one of his films that most people stateside have seen. Obayashi has made more than 40 feature films in his career, as well as a number of shorts and even memorable television commercials. (For instance, I’d seen this cologne ad with Charles Bronson years before I saw Hausu.)
What makes this retrospective fascinating is a chance to see the 77-year-old director’s diverse output, with a focus on his popular and mainstream movies made after Hausu. Like Hausu, two great Obayashi movies screening tomorrow–1982’s I Are You, You Am Me (Exchange Student) and 1986’s Bound for the Fields, the Mountains, and the Seacoast— feature a childlike take on the world, but they’re done in distinct ways.
I’m going to take a brief look at those three child’s-eye-view films right now. Next week, I’ll look at how Obayashi’s Sada (which screens this Sunday) approaches the same subject matter of Nagisa Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses, and will also have a full review of Obayshi’s most recent film, Seven Weeks (which screens next Sunday).
For tickets and more info on the retrospective, visit japansociety.org.
In Alec’s Cult Club piece on Hausu, he hinged some of his observations on the childlike approach to the film. Originally intended as a remake of Jaws, Obayashi went entirely in his own direction, blending his background in experimental filmmaking with the imagery of soap operas, melodramas, youth pictures, and colorful horror films. (I’d still love to see a Jaws remake done in the style of Hausu.) Obayashi turned to his 10-year-old daughter for the film’s story, and it feels like the sort of story a 10-year-old would tell. There’s a haunted house that eats people, and a bunch of school girls are its prey. Spooky and surreal things happen. And then Noodle Bear.
I mentioned last week that Hausu feels like the fever dream of an imaginative child who’s really into Scooby-Doo and Mario Bava. The events unfold with the logic of the subconscious, as Obayashi fills the film with his young daughter’s fears. It’s an anarchic film, a story told without an expectation of adult rules since the film is mostly about young girls fending for themselves and using their own skills and ingenuity to do it. The finished movie is like the work of a child rooting through an upended box of art supplies and being asked to make a pretty picture. And what a pretty picture.
What’s striking about Hausu is how the movie seems stitched together by the childlike conjunction “and then”–they went to the house and then Mac’s head flew around and then the piano ate a girl and then Kung Fu jumpkicked stuff and then the man turned into bananas and then there was a flood. It’s a flow of strange ideas, and if a 10-year-old girl told it to you, the stream would only be interrupted for the occasional impish giggle and a brief fit of hyperventilation to catch a breath.
I Are You, You Am Me (転校生, Tenkousei) is a much quieter and down-to-earth film adapted from a novel by Hisashi Yamanaka. Sure, almost any film is much quieter and down-to-earth than Hausu, but I get a sense that I Are You is less like a movie told by a 10-year-old and more like a movie made by an adult who’s taking a thoughtful look back at what it was like to be 14.
I Are You is something of an adolescent minor-masterpiece, a coming-of-age story built on one of the great comedy sub-genres of the 70s and 80s: the body-swap movie. Rather than swap roles of parent and child, I Are You switches the minds of a boy named Kazuo and a girl named Kazumi during the awkward early teen years. Seeing the two child leads “act male” (snips and snails and puppy dogs’ tails) and “act female” (sugar and spice and everything nice) is pretty fascinating, particularly given how gender norms have become more fluid over time, but almost all ideas of maleness and femaleness are products of their time and culture, and so the gender norms in the film are no exception. (Tangent: Maybe there’s an era-specific nature to the body-swap genre? Decades when the world started to become more interconnected and the earth a little flatter?)
I Are You predominantly centers on Kazuo’s mind in Kazumi’s body, which might be a kind of stand-in for Obayashi himself as he tries to inhabit the world of adolescence again and what it’s like to be a young girl. Young actress Satomi Kobayashi has solid body language playing a guy, sort of like Hausu‘s Kung Fu by way of Tom Sawyer. By contrast, Kazumi’s mind in Kazuo’s body is meek and out of sorts, with more than a hint of deep depression. Before the body swap happened, Kazumi was a happy transfer student who’s new in town. Now she’s been unmoored from her own body, and she may have to move away with Kazuo’s family. That unanchored, life-in-flux state is part of growing up, but here its given more metaphorical heaviness.
Much of I Are You is goofy, but it arrives at a beautiful, wistful tone by the final half hour. Many coming-of-age stories are defined by a lesson that equips a child for the adult world. In I Are You, it’s all about the beauty of empathy.
Bound for the Fields, the Mountains, and the Seacoast (野ゆき山ゆき海べゆき, No Yuki Yama Yuki Umibe Yuki) is also a great film, and also its own animal, which speaks to Obayashi’s diverse range as a filmmaker and the concerns he has as a storyteller. It’s a period piece set right before World War II, focused predominantly on the lives of the children of a town as a counterpoint to the poisonous nationalism, militarism, and conformity of the adults. It’s a type of coming-of-age film about empathy, and yet it’s done in a style reminiscent of Yasujiro Ozu, with balanced compositions and characters looking right into the camera as they recite their lines.
In terms of weirdness, Bound for the Fields splits the difference between Hausu and I Are You, like a break in the child world of experience and the adult world. Obayashi continually finds surreal, fantastical moments to play with and locates that beating human heart in the scene. When a young woman meets with a lover at night to discuss running away–she’s going to be sold to a brothel, he’s been conscripted into the Japanese military–there’s a pair of extras above them at a dock playing with sparklers. As we come in for the two-shot of the couple, the foreground becomes filled with sparks. It’s a beautiful bit of romantic dazzle.
By focusing on children in Bound for the Fields, Obayashi is able to critique the absurdities and horrors of war and also the underlying creepiness of playing war as a child. As the kids simulate a battle, they chuck rocks at one another. It’s fun and games, but as their bodies lay flat to play dead, it can’t help but evoke thoughts of the real and forthcoming horrors of WWII; the same goes when watching the kids tied up playing prisoner and tortured enemy combatant.
As the factions of children join together to save a boy’s sister-in-law from life in a brothel, they come up with a type of game that doubles as a rescue mission. It reminded me of the weird solution that Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer have for getting Jim out of his jam. Mark Twain did that rescue as a farce because, as George Saunders mentioned in an essay, the ugly and logical reality of what would have happened to Jim had it not been a farce would be too dark to handle in a comic novel. Obayashi, on the other hand, takes the light and the dark of the situation, blending farce with painful social commentary. As a coming-of-age-story, Bound for the Fields deals with the way children confront the ugliness of the adult world, and also the realization that it’s a world they’ll eventually join.