Director Spotlight: Travelling Through Space and Time with Nobuhiko Ôbayashi

Nobuhiko Ôbayashi had a sixty-year-long career that spanned many genres of film. He directed over fifty films, but for some reason, other than his 1977 horror romp House, his work is largely unseen outside of Japan. That is unfortunate, because he has a plethora of creative and visually interesting films that would be much more acclaimed internationally if people could just see them! Ôbayashi started out making experimental short films and honing his eccentric visual style. He was later hired on to make commercials and spent awhile doing that, making over 3000. After his debut film House was a success (and later a cult classic), it was only the beginning for his illustrious career. Sadly, Ôbayashi died in early 2020 of lung cancer, but his legacy lives on though his wonderful filmography.

House (1977)

House (1977) is Ôbayashi's most well known film thanks to Criterion's release in the west. It's an intriguing mixture of horror and comedy and often goes off into dadaesque tangents with nonsensical situations. The narrative embraces dream logic and fantasy and if not for the gore could easily be a madcap ghost story for children. This mixture of innocence and darker themes crops up a lot in Ôbayashi's filmography.

The story revolves around a young girl named Gorgeous who wants to spend the summer at aunt's house. She invites six of her friends: Prof, Melody, Kung Fu, Mac, Sweet, and Fantasy. This film doesn't hide the fact that all of these characters are archetypes, even being so bold as to name them after their defining personality traits. In the first act, when the girls are traveling to the house and hanging out, the tone feels quite light and airy, which makes the shift to the horror later that much more effective.

Once the supernatural attacks commence the pacing doesn't let up for one single second until the climax. Each girl is consumed by their passion, both literally and figuratively. Melody, who loves to play the piano, is eaten (quite graphically) by one, and Gorgeous is burned alive while preening herself in front of a possessed mirror. In a way, it feels like the gruesome morality plays of Grimms' Fairy Tales but perhaps more tongue-in-cheek. 

The garish cartoon effects exist in a strangely compelling synergy with the blood and severed limbs flying all over the place. Ôbayashi's penchant for spastic editing and jump cuts gives everything a frenetic energy that is engaging even when the story threatens to dive headfirst into incoherence. His use of space and color is masterful and his penchant for gorgeous romanticized painted backgrounds gives everything a storybook aesthetic.  Ôbayashi's background in experimental and surreal short films shines through and makes for a one-of-a-kind experience.

School in the Crosshairs (1981)

Those looking for more phantasmagorical visuals like House (1977) will find a lot to get excited about with the fantasy sci-fi hybrid School in the Crosshairs (1981). Starring the young pop idol Hiroko Yakushimaru as Yuka, a high school girl who discovers by accident she has superpowers, this film mixes a coming-of-age narrative with fantastical events befitting a "magical girl" anime or manga. Yuka seems to have the ability to manipulate time by either stopping it all together or reversing it. She has a best friend named Kohji (Ryôichi Takayanagi), who is obsessed with being the best on his Kendo team but is suffering in his studies as a result of practicing too much. Much of the first two acts of the story are concerned with regular life and how young people cope with the immense pressures of Japanese society on the youth in school.

Yuka draws the ire of Arikawa (Makoto Tezuka), a cartoonish over-the-top nerd who is jealous of her high grades and popularity with her peers. When Takamizawa (Masami Hasegawa), a new girl who also has super powers enters the picture, the story takes a darker route as she starts a fascist movement in the school (complete with faux-Nazi uniforms) and it's up to Yuka to try to stop her. In the middle of all the drama there is also god from Venus (played by a deliciously wacky Tôru Minegishi) who is trying to take over the world with his first target being the school. It's never really explained what's so special about this place, but by the third act the plot has gone so far off the rails that it ultimately doesn't matter.

Ôbayashi is known for his creative use of visuals, and it's on full display here. He utilizes all kinds of different techniques: hand drawn animation, cut-outs, stop motion, and copious green screen. The last twenty minutes of the film is an all out explosion of colors and images, steeped in intense (some would say melodramatic) emotional monologues that will feel familiar to anyone who has watched Sailor Moon. Young girls using the power of love to defeat their foes, flashy magic attacks, sweeping piano themes--it's all there. The subtext of School in the Crosshairs seems to be about the youth fighting back against being forced into roles that they don't want, or being put into rigid boxes where there is no freedom of expression. The Nazi aesthetic used to illustrate this might feel a bit too heavy-handed, but that's just part of the era in which it was made (though I have noticed in Japanese film in particular they are more liberal with using Nazi imagery as it seems to not have the same taboo it does in other cultures). 

Overall, while this film feels a bit messy, it is always intriguing and it has its heart in the right place.

The Drifting Classroom (1987)

Based on the 1972 manga series of the same name by Kazuo Umezu, The Drifting Classroom (1987) is an extraordinarily strange entry in Ôbayashi's filmography.

An international school located in Kobe, Japan is somehow caught in a time warp that sends it an indeterminate amount of years into the future, where the world seemingly has become an endless desert inhabited by giant bugs. The entire school, building and all, is whisked away, and the students and teachers alike have to figure out how to survive both the harsh elements and incomprehensible events. Outside of the whimsical first act (complete with a musical number) the film feels like a disaster film mixed with a horror movie, with many of the children not surviving the monster attacks. The tone goes back-and-forth between silly hi-jinks and darker themes such as starvation, loneliness, grief, and death.

Right away, the most noticeable aspect of The Drifting Classroom is that a majority of the dialogue is in English, and it's quite apparent that English is a second language for most of the cast. This leads to stilted conversations, awkward outbursts and moments where it's difficult to understand what the characters are saying. At best it's distracting, but at its worst it undermines some of the sequences. One gets used to it after watching the film for a bit, but it seems like a peculiar choice by Ôbayashi. Other elements haven't aged well, especially a black character who carries around a racist blackface statue/bank and some questionable relationships hinted at between older men and younger girls. It's nothing egregious, just remnants of a different time and place.

Ôbayashi's unfettered sentimentality powers the narrative from the ground up enhanced by a beautiful score by Joe Hisaishi, famous for his evocative and lilting work on Ghibli films. The theme of The Drifting Classroom seems to be the idea that children, once they start growing up, drift away from their parents into a new world, that of adulthood. The protagonist, Sho (Yasufumi Hayashi) is a young boy on the cusp of puberty and his journey through the film has him coming to terms with leaving his mother and forging onto his own path and accepting a leadership position. The moments between him and his mother are the most touching aspects of the film and feel the most human, even with all the fantastical things going on in the peripheral. There are many special effects sequences, some fun practical effects creatures, and the last third of the film is dreamlike and haunting. It's not one of Ôbayashi's best works but it's an interesting watch nonetheless.

--Michelle Kisner