In 1975, Japanese studio Toho needed some box office pull. Jaws had just been released, and with it came the boom of summer blockbusters that changed cinema forever. Toho wanted a similar slice of success, and hired Nobuhiko Ōbayashi — a Seijo University liberal arts graduate known for directing TV commercials — to conceptualise and script a film that would rival the highest-grossing productions of the world.
Ōbayashi then wrote the script for Hausu, a psychedelic horror film filled with ideas from his pre-teen daughter that is mad, colourful and, most crucially, absolutely nothing like Jaws. It’s full of demonic cats, evil pianos and floating heads set against a backdrop of gorgeous hand-drawn landscapes, an incredibly far cry from what was asked of Ōbayashi. Toho agreed to make the film, but spent a whole year pitching it to the company’s favoured feature-length directors, all of whom rejected the bizarre narrative, confident that it would instantly end their careers. After finding no success with inner circle collaborators, Toho caved and gave the film back to Ōbayashi to direct with full creative control. House released in 1977 — the first-ever film made entirely in Japanese with an English title.
House became an instant hit, and has since nestled into the camp of cult classic horror, despite its campy and kaleidoscopic presentation. The visual flair implies that the film is not to be taken seriously, and maybe that was indeed Ōbayashi’s intention. But a recurring theme in the director’s work makes itself abundantly clear in House’s storytelling. Oshare (named Angel or Gorgeous in some translations) and her six stereotyped schoolgirl friends travel to her mysterious Auntie’s house, not long after her father announced that she has a new stepmother upon her own mother’s passing. Oshare’s Auntie serves as a window into Ōbayashi’s staunch anti-war sentiments, inhabiting the titular house as a vengeful spirit, and tormented with grief following her fiance’s death during the war.
These themes spread across Ōbayashi’s career, most prominently in his 2017 feature Hanagatami, a threee-hour magnum opus focused on a group of young people contending with their burgeoning adolescence set against the backdrop of war. The film was 40 years in the making, with the script having been written in the 70s even before House. It’s a film that Ōbayashi joked would have been more poignant if he died shortly after making it, so that people could say that he’d lived out a long-lasting dream. For this reason, Hanagatami has come to represent Ōbayashi’s work entirely.
The film’s characters, in a way, symbolize the generation that Ōbayashi feels he was a part of in real life; those too young to fight, but old enough to be considered as part of the landscape that the war developed. Their struggles, no matter how menial, always return to the conflict that occurs mostly off-screen, making them feel gradually more helpless as the runtime draws on. Their lives may be no meaningful part of the war effort, but will always remain affected.
Hanagatami is much less exhilarating and joy-driven than House, but it substitutes these elements for a more nuanced approach to the same themes that run through both films. The more careful method of creation reflected in the runtime makes the film feel like a more dedicated assessment of what Ōbayashi meant to set out with his political sentiments when he started making feature films in 1977. The same Ōbayashi-isms are present in Hanagatami — his hyperspeed frame cutting, filming mostly on green screens, opening with “a film” graphic and the incessant repetition of musical motifs (with Hanagatami using Johann Sebastian Bach’s Cello Suite no. 1 in C Major to reflect the theme of loss of culture through conflict). Everything sells the auteur’s idea that reminding an audience that they are watching a film doesn’t detract from the experience, but allows viewers to appreciate that film is an art form that should be treated as such. Ōbayashi may pack his films with subtext and political concepts, but what carries over is his true adoration of cinema.
In Ōbayashi’s films, the heaviest of subject matter can still be taken seriously amidst the chaotic cuts and quick-fire dialogue because every frame is filled with love for the craft. When House was met with criticism implying that it looked too much like Ōbayashi’s work in advertising, he responded by stating that it was an advertisement, for Japanese cinema. Movies in Japan were struggling when House was released due to losses against Western blockbusters, but it never stopped Ōbayashi from making some of the most creative works of the time. His films never mean just one thing, as they are packed with curious visuals and magnificent concepts, paralleled by the director’s pacifism that never detracts from his enigmatic style.
Tragically, Ōbayashi lost his battle with terminal cancer on April 10, 2020, the original Japanese release date of his now final film, Labyrinth of Cinema. Whereas some directors subtly incorporate their personal attachment to certain stories, Ōbayashi took the opposite approach. A director’s chair carrying his name sits in the background of Hanagatami’s final shot, and the film will always remain an Ōbayashi work of art. No director has been able to replicate Nobuhiko Ōbayashi’s iridescent, hallucinatory and infectious passion for film.
Joseph Kime (@Joseph_Kime) is an entertainment journalist and musician from Devon, UK. His favourite movies include Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, House and Little Women. Joseph is most likely to be found scrolling through Twitter or playing Animal Crossing.