The Frida Cinema

Orange County's Year-Round Film Festival

An Ode To Nobuhiko Obayashi

To me, Nobuhiko Obayashi is a one in a million director who is due for a very much needed reevaluation of his work. His style speaks for itself when you see the images and listen to the music of his movies, and his sensibility is not too far from what some might consider childish (in the best way possible, of course). This is seen in his penchant for gross potty humor and loud, naive notions of masculine and feminine traits. For these reasons, Obaysashi’s work isn’t much out of place with modern teenage comedies and crazed slapstick horrorfests. Yet when it came to his overall body of work, you can see how his work in commercials and art film blended together so well. He had such a good eye for taking things to their goofiest limit yet still remaining grounded in the real world. This eye for the avant-garde and knack for putting together outrageous storytelling was fully on display when House came onto the scene. Though audiences in his native Japan didn’t much care for the movie, it became a cult classic across the pond here in America, gaining devoted fans for its zanily innovative use of editing effects and frantic pace. Oddly, it was his first real jump into filmmaking that brought him recognition and put him in prime place to be an unsung hero of Japanese film. He wasn’t Kurosawa, he wasn’t Mizoguchi, but he was still his own widely recognized brand of arthouse film maker.

Unfortunately, his work beyond House is a lot harder to find in the this side of the Pacific. Luckily, there are ways both legit and otherwise that you can pick up his work. What’s also interesting is that Obayashi was probably one of the more prominent directors of live-action manga adaptations. I discovered this myself looking through his work beyond the widely-available House and found that his filmography included adaptations of popular horror drama series Black Jack, the creepy and otherworldly manga The Drifting Classroom, and last but not least the high popular science fiction novel The Girl Who Leapt Through Time. Each one of these adaptations fits nicely into Obayashi’s style of crossover arthouse and commercial work that he did to pay the bills. His early commercial work would help pave the way for a lot of the more absurd styles of commercials we see nowadays, with the products being sold needing a boost of non sequitur images which are in turn spliced together with recognizable actors shouting the product’s name into the ether in order to jolt you into needing the random items. This commercial work also helped to give Obayashi’s adaptations a clear-cut shine that makes them worthy of watching for any fans of the original material in America. 

Starting off with his adaptation of Black’s Jack‘s story The Visitor in the Eye, Obayashi takes the madcap adventure of a ghostly unlicensed genius surgeon Black Jack and turns its into a dramatic, angst-filled mystery that follows the unfortunate love story between a substitute college tennis coach and one of the students. It blends surgical drama tropes along with creepy mystery thriller bits as the student finds herself seeing a ghostly figure following her around (the curious result of receiving an eye transplant after getting into a freak tennis accident at the hands of her substitute coach/love interest). What unfolds is a crazy, ghostly thriller that takes Obayashi’s love for editing tricks and camera work to create a slow woozy burn of a movie that would make Paul Thomas Anderson blush. The twist at the end is typical but worthy of the watch if you get a chance to watch it.

Next up, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time wears its science fiction teenage drama style on its sleeve proudly. Obayashi’s cinematography is on par with the still imagery that is presented in a lot of mangas and still paintings. Obayashi’s go-to cinematographer Yoshitaka Sakamoto brings his almost page-turning filmmaking skill to the table. Some would call it TV movie filmmaking but it works for it is, with Sakamoto placing scenes in the center of his camera through the tried-and-true rule of thirds to bring a more fly on the wall perspective to high school life. The film is well-developed through the cinematography and the editing, utilizing both to build up to the science fiction parts of the movie. It also falls back on the more goofy and strange ideas that wouldn’t be out of place in House, showing how comfortable Obayashi is with adapting a fish out of water story of someone coming to terms with their new found ability to travel in time. Again, a movie worth sitting down and watching so one can see how successful an adaptation can be and how it can be done right without having to water it down to appeal to more mainstream tastes.

Drifting away from adaptations, I Am You, You Are Me sees Obayashi jumping into another teen sci-fi drama that takes on the Freaky Friday switcheroo premise. Having high school teens take on the gender norms of ’80s Japan is an idea ripe with it merit. Though standards of how these types of movies are written and made has obviously changed, Obayashi handles teenage bullying and what is expected of young high school students in a way that would make Disney blush with its track record of body swap movies. Obayashi doesn’t pull any punches with how the male character takes in the newfound change of being in his old child friend’s body, moving forward like not much has to change in order to continue living his life in a way that’s comfortable for him. What he comes to realize is that his friend’s body comes with expectations of being proper and able to take care of a husband in the future, while his friend finds that, in his body, that she is expected to tough and able to handle teasing despite wanting to tap into her sensitive side by talking about her problems and learning from them. Obayashi wasn’t looking to create a straightforward teenage comedy sci-fi film: he wanted to convey that one can be comfortable being open and defending themselves against an indifferent world that will always push expectations on those it feels should be a certain way. All in all, it’s a great movie that takes on strict views of gender roles that needed to be challenged at the time and should still be challenged to this day.

Obayashi had a very sound idea of what film can be, with just the tiniest bit of surrealism spliced into everyday life problems and showing how even the most mundane things can be made interesting with the right kind of arthouse filmmaking.