Working for Tomorrow: An Interview with Nobuhiko Obayashi

The great Japanese auteur of _Hausu_ discusses his latest film, _Hanagatami_, being raised as a military child, and making movies for tomorrow.
Aiko Masubuchi

Nobuhiko Obayashi's Hanagatami (2017) is showing January 24 – February 22, 2019 exclusively on MUBI as part of the series Direct from Rotterdam.

Nobuhiko Obayashi

It may be easy to dismiss Nobuhiko Obayashi as a cult horror film director due to the notoriety of his celebrated debut feature, Hausu (1977), but what does not get discussed often enough is Obayashi as a thinker who has always pushed the boundaries of the cinematic medium. He was a central figure in the 1960s Japanese 8mm and 16mm experimental film scene, his pop-star vehicle “idol” films in the 1980s were national sensations, and he continues to make convention-defying movies with his abundant use of green screens in digital cinema. His diverse and prolific filmography spans across genres including horror, crime, comedy, documentary, family dramas, coming-of-age dramas and even animation. Watch Exchange Student (1982) and you'll see that Makoto Shinkai's Your Name (2016) was made decades earlier. Many may know that Obayashi was on the set of Akira Kurosawa's Dreams (1990) to capture the making of the film. It's impossible not to come across Obayashi in one way or another in discussing modern Japanese cinema.

Throughout it all, what has always been common even during his days of making television commercials is his determination to imbue any style or genre with his own philosophical thoughts. Obayashi’s interest in history, language and war as well as his staunch stance in his beliefs could make him a smiling (and kinder) counterpoint to filmmakers like Jean-Luc Godard with a similarly important and diverse trajectory. Today, as an octogenarian and with an even more fierce understanding of his own philosophy and themes, Obayashi, a self-proclaimed “life-long amateur filmmaker,” is unbridled by convention and indefatigable as ever. 

Completed 40 years after Hausu, Hanagatami (2017) is the last in what Obayashi calls his war trilogy along with Casting Blossoms to the Sky (2012) and Seven Weeks (2015), all made after and in response to the 3/11 Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011 and its continuing aftermath. Casting Blossoms to the Sky is set in the town of Nagaoka and follows a news reporter who one day receives a letter from her former lover asking her to come to see the fireworks and a play that his students are putting on. Seven Weeks is set in the northern town of Ashibetsu and begins with the death of a grandfather who lived his young adult life during the Second World War. Both films stylistically shift between documentary and fiction and leap back and forth in time, making connections between wartime youth and youth living in Japan in post-3/11. 

Hanagatami, whose script was originally written decades earlier, tonally shifts away from the previous two films, while completing a thematic near-circle for Obayashi, who jokes that it would have been prettier if he died right after completing the movie so that people could say that he lived out his 40 year-long dream. This sentiment of being unable to die a timely death is a theme both prevalent in Hanagatami and Obayashi’s own life. The film is an adaptation of a short story of the same name by Kazuo Dan published in 1936—one that famously inspired Yukio Mishima to become a writer. Hanagatami, which is set in 1941, follows a cast of young men and women who desperately try to live life to the fullest against a backdrop of inevitable death and war. The film is framed by the point of view of a narrator who continued to live despite what felt like an inevitable death.

In a past interview, Obayashi has said that “I am not making anti-war films. I just do not like war.” To Obayashi, war is a personal issue. He is not interested in dualistic platitudes that claim war as evil and peace as good, and instead guides us to see that both war and peace are made by the same people. He relates this idea back to his particular generation born between the years 1935–40, who were too young to fight in the war but were old enough to be raised as military children and who could not fully claim themselves as a post-war generation. According to him, his generation was abandoned by the war when the country switched gears almost overnight from militarism to pacifism. He saw how the same people who were ready to die in the military could also believe in peace.

The film’s main character, only referred to as “me” (whose name in the book is astonishingly Toshihiko which is written by combining the characters of the first names of actor Shunsuke Kubozuka who plays the role and Nobuhiko Obayashi’s name), is a wide-eyed and exuberant high schooler in the town of Karatsu who enthusiastically befriends his classmates, Kira (Keishi Nagatsuka), a nihilistic intellectual who had spent most of his days bedridden, Ukai (Shinnosuke Mitsushima), a mysterious and brooding beautiful man, and Aso (Tokio Emoto), the class clown. By casting actors who are significantly older than their roles (some of them 40 years old), Obayashi colors the characters with a knowingness beyond their youth. Their youthful actions are so hyperbolic that they come off as so desperate that they verge on a sense of horror. Toshihiko visits his aunt’s manor (reminiscent of that of Hausu) where his aunt Keiko Ema (Takako Tokiwa) takes care of the luminous Mina Ema (Honoka Yahagi), who suffers from tuberculosis with little life ahead of her. They are visited often by Mina’s friends: the frank and honest Akine (Hirona Yamazaki) and the sullen Chihiro (Mugi Kadowaki), who is Ukai’s girlfriend and Kira’s cousin. With Keiko acting as a chaperone, the young meet and picnic in moments of amplified peacefulness in an increasingly hysterical world.

Obayashi says that in the late 1970s when he first wanted to make the film, he did not think that he would see Japan and the rest of the world so close to the brink of world war again. It is early January 2019 when we sit down for his interview in his humble workspace. The 81-year-old director is taking a break from editing his upcoming feature due to be released later this year. More than two years has passed since he started shooting Hanagatami and was diagnosed with stage four cancer and three months left to live. It has done little to slow the filmmaker down. His next feature will be a return to his hometown, Onomichi in Hiroshima, and deals directly with the atomic bomb and the war.

NOTEBOOK: Your works feature a lot of wordplay. Is that something you do often and think about? 

NOBUHIKO OBAYASHI: It’s not so much wordplay but playing with sound. It’s very interesting to me that when you deconstruct words into sounds and then rebuild them you get a different word. They’re different words but they share the same roots. They become different meanings. Punning is a linguistic practice in lateral thinking, even though humans often think longitudinally. When you think longitudinally, you are in pursuit of meaning. When you think laterally, you remove meaning and use sounds. When you do that you, in fact, see the details better. The words begin to reveal themselves. My one hobby in life is to read the encyclopedia.

NOTEBOOK: Your idea about punning seems to suggest a sense of discovery by experimentation. I’ve read that you make a lot of changes to your script while shooting. 

OBAYASHI: If I shot my film a year ago and if I were to finish that film exactly as I intended during that time, my film will only be a reflection of myself a year ago. Both the world and I have changed a lot in a year. The work I make should express that change. If you do that, last year’s work can become next year’s work. If it doesn’t lead to tomorrow, there’s no use in discussing the past or in working on something today.

Besides, if what Prime Minister Abe says changes so much over the course of a year, I would lose if I’m not changing as well. 

NOTEBOOK: When I look at your abundant use of green screens in your films, I think about the fact that a lot of time-spaces are existing in one frame. 

OBAYASHI: That’s an insightful thought. Most people would think that if I’m going to go through all that trouble with the special effects, I should just shoot it properly on location.

NOTEBOOK: Yet, you deliberately greenscreen.

OBAYASHI: I use green screens all over the place because I think that the composite that I do today would be different from the one I would have done a year ago. A new reality arises from using footage from last year in the compositing process today. In my films, I connect frames, rather than shots.

NOTEBOOK: Where does your distinct film language and style come from?

OBAYASHI: Ultimately, what is important is that a person’s life is the one life that the person has to live. In my life, the most important thing is that I was a military boy during the war. I believed that if Japan lost the war, an adult will be kind enough to kill me. If Japan lost, we were supposed to kill ourselves. But at seven years old, the idea of holding a sword and stabbing my own body felt frightening and I couldn’t figure out how we were supposed to die. The old man next door who used to tell me out of kindness, that he’ll help me by decapitating me if Japan loses, was already running around town shouting “peace!” as soon as the war was over.

Adults always lie. That’s what my generation learned. What was righteous yesterday in Japan changed overnight to say that the Americans were correct. We were told overnight that Japan’s sense of justice was wrong. So how do we continue to live? My generation could not become part of the wartime, the pre-war, nor the post-war generation. We were told that Japan will disappear if we lost, but the Great Empire of Japan continued to remain. I was a second grader when Japan lost and for two years after that my school remained being the “National School.” At the National School, it said at the beginning of our textbooks that the school nurtured children who would bravely die for the Great Japanese Empire. You would think a school like this would disappear after the war, but it remained for two more years. Japan is a very strange country. 

NOTEBOOK: And you believe that you don’t belong in the pre-war, wartime, or post-war generation? 

OBAYASHI: I think it’s true about all those who were born between 1935–40. Shuji Terayama is a really good example. He wrote a very famous tanka poem about how there is no more motherland worthy of exchange for his life. After the war, it would have been easy if we had all died, but nobody would kill us. The adults in Japan betrayed us and we stayed alive. And once we were living, we were tasked with creating peace. But never had there been a Japan that was tasked with creating peace. We were the first generation. And so our generation tried to work hard at it with no foundation to rely on. Terayama too. He made movies, wrote plays and became a cultural critic. By the end of his life, he committed to being a critic. He spent most of the last five years of his life writing political commentary in newspapers.

NOTEBOOK: Your films also seem to have become more politically vocal recently. Though, reflecting back on Hausu, your political bent was always there. 

OBAYASHI: That’s where the mystery and intrigue of my films lie. Hanagatami is the best example. I wanted to make it 40 years ago but nobody cared about it. At the time, there were movies like Jaws and the idea was that if Toho studios hired someone like me who had been making popular television commercials, more people would come and see Japanese movies. And so I brought up Hanagatami and showed them the script. They said that studio contract film directors make films like these and they asked, “do you have a film that’s similar to sharks attacking humans?” And so I consulted my daughter Chigumi and Hausu was born.

That said, the script for Hausu and Hanagatami are actually the same. Takako Tokiwa’s role is called Keiko Ema. In Hausu, the new stepmother was called Ryoko Ema. They’re the same. 

It was then that I learned about genre as a filmmaker. I learned that if I change the genre, I can still make a movie with the same theme. What might not be of interest as an art film can be made a big hit if it’s horror. I decided then that I will make a lot of different movies about the same theme. 

I finally got a hold of my main theme with Casting Blossoms to the Sky. That’s because 3/11 happened. For those who experienced losing the war, 3/11 was a do-over. I thought that no longer will the Japanese think materialistically or conveniently. I thought we will learn to be compassionate and work together. I thought we were going to be okay and so I made Casting Blossoms to the Sky and three years later, Seven Weeks. I thought the Japanese will cast away nuclear power plants and will move to a better direction, but sadly the government doesn’t move that way. And the one reason is because without war, they can’t feed themselves. It’s the military industrial complex. So, of course, the government won’t stop a war.

NOTEBOOK: So you were optimistic about Japan’s change when you made Seven Weeks but by the time you made Hanagatami you no longer felt that way?

OBAYASHI: I wasn’t conscious of it at the time but after I finished making Hanagatami, I had an opportunity to re-watch Seven Weeks and I thought, “Oh, I was already suspicious when I made Seven Weeks.” I think if you watch Seven Weeks and Hanagatami together, you can understand my philosophy.

NOTEBOOK: Do you feel that your philosophy has gained more specificity in your more recent films?

OBAYASHI: The reason that the dialogue in Hanagatami continued to change was because I kept feeling that I had been betrayed again and again. At the same time, my dear friend Isao Takahata died. He died of lung cancer which is the same thing that I have. It was incredibly sad for me.

Like myself, Takahata did not make films about losing the war. He decided to make a record of his experiences of the war. Grave of the Fireflies is exactly this. When you re-watch it today, you understand very well that it is a story set after the war. It’s not set during the war. It’s a story of remembering the war, after the war. Grave of the Fireflies is a story of a brother’s egoism that killed his little sister. That’s what Takahata meant to express, but everyone read the film as a movie about a brother trying his best to save his little sister. Takahata used to always say that “I did not intend to make such an righteous film.” My generation understands this very well.

Takahata used to say to me, “Obayashi, how careless we were. We didn’t think that Japan will become a country that would go to war again. I had made films thinking so, but how careless we were.” And with that, he made Princess Kaguya. When you watch that film today, you see that the film has no conclusion. If anything, that film is saying that there is no such thing as a polarity that says war is bad and peace is good. Rather, that those who make war and those who make peace are one and the same people. Both are Princess Kaguya. So you have to make the decision yourself. Think for yourself about whether you want to make money or start wars or whether you would rather have peace even if it means to starve by trying. He pitched a big question mark at us.

I don't optimistically believe in happy endings. Watch a sci-fi movie and they all conclude with the end of the world. Humans predict somewhere that with prosperity comes extinction. It’s just about when that will happen. When I first saw 2001: A Space Odyssey, I thought that the earth still has a long time to go, but it’s only been half a century and we’re already at a place of uncertainty. Children of war have always had a sense of resignation towards peace. Humans have to eat, after all, and in order to eat, there is no peace. But it is the movies that proved that humans are capable of imagining peace. It’s in the happy endings.

In the 20th century, humans brought military technology into the fight and accelerated us much closer to the end. The movies are part of this technology. Movies are different in that way from art that came before. It’s a destructive art. And to believe in happy endings using a destructive art is basically an act of desperation.

What’s important is how long you can make that happy ending continue. If you’re only concerned with it lasting your own life time, happiness is only about eating decadently and becoming famous. Many creators are this way. 

What matters is to be concerned about how long your will can continue to be felt even to a few people beyond your death. Akira Kurosawa told me that if he had 400 more years, he could make the world a happy place, but he was 80 at the time and as a man close to death he said that he did not have enough time. He said, “Obayashi, how old are you now? 50! That means you have at least another 30 years. If you have 30 more years, you can do more work towards this world and if you can’t make it there, your children and grandchildren will continue it and when it’s my 400th anniversary, when your great grandchildren are making films, there will be no wars. I believe this. So you have to continue my task.” That was his will to me. The last thing he said to me was “Obayashi, only you would understand that I have finally become an amateur filmmaker. After I quit Toho, I became an amateur filmmaker. How great it is to be able to honestly make movies with all my might about the things I truly believe in.” The movie he made then was an anti-nuclear film. He didn’t make those at Toho.

In the last 100 years we’ve hit the point where there is no winner and loser. During the war there were winners and losers and so in a way war no longer exists today. Now, we’re just fighting to prevent whoever presses the button first. Trump can press the button anytime. What a world we’re living in. If anyone asks whether it’s faster for Trump to press the button or for me to make films that would bring people together—of course it’s faster to press the button. But to live is to think “I’ll make 30 films in the time it takes for Trump to reach that button.” That’s the job of an artist.

Special thanks to Neo Sora for his help and to Chigumi Obayashi for setting up the interview.

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