Nobuhiko Obayashi: A Retrospective
Friday, November 20 through Sunday, December 6
Japan Society – 333 E. 47th Street (between First and Second Avenues)
Tickets: $12/$9 Japan Society members, seniors and students, except for the opening night screening of House, $15/$12, including after party
Celebrated Japanese film auteur receives largest U.S. retrospective at Japan Society from November 20 through December 6. Nobuhiko Obayashi was born in 1938 and began his career as a pioneer of Japanese experimental cinema in the 1960s. He went on to create a number of innovative and popular commercials afterwards, then moving to feature films in the late ‘70s and establishing himself with a string of cult and mainstream successes.
Obayashi remained virtually unknown in the U.S. until he burst into the consciousness of many American film fans with his hit studio debut House (1977), which made a splash upon its rediscovery in 2009 when it screened at the New York Asian Film Festival and was subsequently run at IFC Center and released on DVD by the Criterion Collection. But House was only the beginning.
The retrospective comprises ten feature films and a short spanning 50 years of Obayashi’s career, from 1964 through 2014. Launching with House and concluding with his most recent feature Seven Weeks, and featuring several appearances by Obayashi himself, Nobuhiko Obayashi: A Retrospective provides a thorough introduction (or reintroduction) to this endlessly innovative, singular film artist, highlighting a number of commercial and personal films, most of which are unknown outside of Japan.
Guest curated by Dr. Aaron Gerow, Professor of Film Studies and East Asian Languages and Literatures at Yale University, who made the selection in conversation with Obayashi himself, the series offers a deeper understanding and appreciation of Obayashi’s major themes and considers Obayashi’s entire career beyond cult favorites, presenting him as an established auteur with a coherent vision. “One of the last major Japanese directors active since the 1960s, Nobuhiko Obayashi is a wonderful study in contrasts,” writes Gerow.
In addition to introducing House and taking part in a Q&A following the screening, Obayashi will appear in an intimate, in-depth public conversation prior to the screenings taking place on Saturday, November 21. For this U.S. visit, Obayashi will be accompanied by his daughter, Chigumi Obayashi, also a filmmaker, who will present her own documentary film A Dialogue: Living Harmony on November 18 before the retrospective starts, co-presented with Japan Society’s U.S.-Japan Innovators Network. (Chigumi is also credited as providing Obayashi with the story for House at the age of 7.)
Film descriptions written by Aaron Gerow
Friday, November 20 at 7:00 p.m.
**Introduction and Q&A with Nobuhiko Obayashi.
**Followed by the Hausu Party.
Hoping for something wild to electrify a Japanese cinema that had hit the doldrums, Toho gave newcomer Nobuhiko Obayashi free reign to make something no one had seen before. And he did. Ostensibly a horror film about a girl who brings her friends to her aunt’s house, only to see them killed, one by one, by possessed household furniture and appliances, House often plunges into parody, while also demonstrating all the tricks that were possible with celluloid which we in the digital age have forgotten. Obayashi’s debut film vigorously proclaimed his name at home and eventually abroad, but it was also a marvelous sign of what was to come.
One of the monuments in the history of Japanese experimental film, Complexe actually shares much with Obayashi’s later commercial work: a delightful play with film form (slow motion, animation using human figures, freeze frames, etc.), a consciousness of the camera, a charming mix of pop genres and European art cinema, and a nostalgic, if not Romanticist tone.
Bound for the Fields, the Mountains and the Seacoast (No Yuki Yama Yuki Umibe Yuki)
Saturday, November 21 at 4:00 p.m.
Co-presented with The Japan Foundation.
Two versions are available of this story of kids banding together to try to rescue their idol from being sold into prostitution immediately before WWII, one in color and one in B&W. While the latter is now unavailable, even the color version reveals how Obayashi musters much of classical Japanese film, particularly 1930s Shochiku and Yasujiro Ozu – as well as a bit of experimental film, particularly Shuji Terayama – to present both a playful critique of wartime social power and the Japan that was lost in its destruction, as well as Obayashi’s imaginary revenge against that structure. Even the idol looks a bit like Setsuko Hara!
I Are You, You Am Me (aka Exchange Student) (Tenkousei)
Saturday, November 21 at 7:00 p.m.
**Nobuhiko Obayashi in attendance
Print courtesy of Kawakita Memorial Film Institute.
Two adolescent classmates, the girl Kazumi and the boy Kazuo, tumble down some stairs and find they’ve switched bodies. This results in pubescent comic confusion and serious pronoun trouble, but Obayashi colors the gender confusion with a tinge of autobiographical nostalgia, not only filming in his hometown of Onomichi, but also framing the story through B&W 8mm film. When a character can say “I are you,” then perhaps saying goodbye to another becomes a farewell to oneself, framed by the lens of an old home movie camera. The film was so crucial to his filmography that Obayashi remade it in 2007.
Sunday, November 22 at 1:00 p.m.
Sada Abe, the woman who notoriously strangled and castrated her lover and became the basis for Nagisa Oshima’s masterpiece, In the Realm of the Senses, may seem far removed from Obayashi’s young and pure women. But by rendering Sada into an innocent maiden whose pure love for a sickly medical student is offered as the backstory for her life, the film emphasizes that her image is artificial, that Sada herself is “a movie”–and perhaps all the more tragic for being so. A technical tour de force, citing multiple facets of modern Japanese image culture, Sada won the FIPRESCI award at the 1998 Berlin Film Festival.
Haruka, Nostalgia (Haruka, Nosutarujii)
Sunday, November 22 at 4:00 p.m.
Obayashi has made several films about memory and lost loves, and Haruka, Nostalgia is the most famous. These films connect with another major Obayashi theme: the young, innocent woman–termed shojo in Japanese. While now a centerpiece of Japanese culture, from girls’ comics to Hayao Miyazaki’s heroines, the shojo in Obayashi are liminal figures inhabiting the boundaries between past and present and life and death, confronting the heroes with their own mortality. In this film, a writer of shojo novels returns to his hometown of Otaru and encounters first a young woman and then, mysteriously, his own, youthful self, forcing him to remember a girl he once loved and rejected.
The Rocking Horsemen (Seishun Dendekedekedeke)
Sunday, November 22 at 7:30 p.m.
Obayashi again ventures into the past via The Ventures, to the time when Japanese youth discovered the electric guitar and rock and roll in the mid-1960s. Four high schoolers in a small coastal town on Shikoku Island hear “Pipeline” on the radio and decide to form their own band. The film features the problems with girls, family and life after adolescence that are staples of the genre, but Obayashi enthusiastically joins the band with his camera, giving a bravura performance. The Rocking Horsemen features a quite young Tadanobu Asano (Ichi the Killer).
Beijing Watermelon (Pekin no Suika)
Saturday, December 5 at 4:00 p.m.
Based on the true story of a Tokyo greengrocer who started helping out poor exchange students from China, Beijing Watermelon is a delicious oddity in Obayashi’s filmography. While again using his stock cast of actors like Toru Minegishi and Yasufumi Hayashi, he gives the starring role to Bengaru, a journeyman by-player, and keeps his camera at a distance, letting the performers fill the screen with wonderfully anarchic movement and the soundtrack with busy, overlapping dialogue. The result is a kind of Japanese masala, a multi-ethnic mix of spices. (English subtitles created in-house by Japan Society just for this screening.)
The Discarnates (Ijin Tachi to no Natsu)
Saturday, December 5 at 7:00 pm
Obayashi’s efforts to revisit the past of both Japan and its cinema are often mirrored by characters who explore their own pasts. As with Tomorrow (1995), The Discarnates takes this to the supernatural level, as a scriptwriter mysteriously encounters his dead father in Tokyo’s old Asakusa neighborhood one day and begins enjoying the time with his parents–in the Japan of the late 1950s–that he never had, since they died when he was 12 years old. Obayashi allows his characters the opportunity to make up for a loss, but only by underlining how nostalgia is often a longing for what one never had. Winner, 1989 Mainichi Film Award for Best Director.
Reason (aka The Motive) (Riyuu)
Sunday, December 6 at 3:00 pm
Based on a novel by hit mystery writer Miyuki Miyabe, Reason is a good example of Miyabe’s focus on the social causes of crime. What seems to be the murder of a family of four in a high-rise condo turns out to be something quite different, as the pasts of both the killer and the killer’s killer are explored, divulging their “reasons.” First broadcast on the WOWOW satellite channel before being released in theaters, the film extends the novel into a different media by having many of the characters address the camera, not just making us the detective, but making us and the medium itself part of the society that may itself be the “reason.”
Seven Weeks (No no Nanananoka)
Sunday, December 6 at 7:00 pm
Obayashi’s most recent film is a grand compilation of his career. Ostensibly about a family mourning the death of their 92-year-old patriarch, it spans the local (set in Ashibetsu, a small northern town whose residents helped fund it) and the global (referencing the history of Japan’s colonization of Sakhalin Island, now part of Russia), and explores themes of lost love, memory, war and art. Ruthlessly fragmenting scenes and setting a furious pace with one experimental technique following another, Seven Weeks breaks down the barriers between past and present, reality and illusion, and even self and other, all in order to create an emotionally profound experience of loss and hope.
A Dialogue: Living Harmony (Hyaku Nen Gohan)
Wednesday, November 18 at 7:00 p.m.
**Followed by a reception
$20/$15 Japan Society members, seniors & students
This directorial debut by Chigumi Obayashi is a documentary that sheds light on the town of Usuki in Oita Prefecture, Japan that came together in 2010 to build the Usuki Compost Manufacturing Center in an effort to revitalize itself through sustainable means. Through the town’s story and its unconventional narrative structure, the film poses universal questions about the future of food and the environment. The screening will be followed by a discussion and Q&A between Obayashi and Richard McCarthy, Executive Director of Slow Food USA and a member of Japan Society’s Innovators Network. Co-Presented by the Japan Society Innovators Network.
Nobuhiko Obayashi: A Conversation
Saturday, November 21 at 1:00 p.m.
$12/$9 Japan Society members, seniors and students
Nobuhiko Obayashi appears in person to discuss his career, from what got him started in experimental film and how he transitioned to commercials (working with celebrities like Charles Bronson, Sophia Loren, and Catherine Deneuve), to his biggest influences and inspirations when he began making feature films. Moderated by series curator Aaron Gerow.
To purchase tickets, please visit Japan Society’s website.