There’s no one way to make a movie. At least, there shouldn’t be. Like an addict to a drug, audiences insist there is only one way they want to see a movie. Cinema like any media is a commodity just as much as it remains an art. Though art could never claim to induce the high-octane, epic pleasures of a Marvel spectacle or a summer blockbuster it does perhaps something more raw and earnest than that offered to us in the grandiosity of commodity cinema. Filmmaker Nobuhiko Obayashi has been an unsung hero of the Japanese cinema since the late 70’s when he released his debut feature length cult classic House (Hausu). He loves cinema as a totality, not in the manner than many academics and theorists do where they adore films solely as an artform capable of dispensing truth and depicting reality or lack thereof, this is a man for whom simply walking into a theater is a religious and righteous act of sublime beauty. Comparing his first feature length House and his final film Labyrinth of Cinema is indicative of a fascinating aspect of his auteurship: inclusivity.
The history of cinema is all the same history, a shared bloodline and flow whose narrative knows no capacity and is constantly reintegrating and discarding aspects of its own existence. That is, according to Nobuhiko Obayashi, who is an unabashed cinephile and pacifist, which is not some hollow and willful naivety but a pragmatic and studied pacifism. His debut film House follows Gorgeous, a young woman who has learned that her father has married a new woman, angry she contacts her aunt and asks if she and her friends can stay with her for a portion of the summer. The aunt complies and Gorgeous brings six of her comrades along only to discover that the house in which her aunt resides is making attempts at devouring them in increasingly bizarre and shocking fashion. While the basics of the plot read like an 80’s B-horror flick Obayashi contorts the horror elements of the plot through kitschy aesthetics, whimsy, humor and the subtext that pervades all his works: the aftermath of World War II. Obayashi was born in Hiroshima in 1938 and lived through the atomic bombing in 45’, losing many friends and family members to the devastation. He spent his career overcoming this trauma and using cinema as a tunnel by which to access the past and inject it with the hopes of a future. House is ultimately a story about seven young women who can’t escape the past, or rather, an entire society haunted by ghosts that are hungry for a life denied them. Obayashi takes the tradition of a possession narrative and asks us to mourn alongside the lingering souls that wander a post-war landscape. The auntie who the seven young visit is revealed to be a spirit late in the film, she died waiting for her husband to return from the war. War for Obayashi is not a productive force, it’s only capable of degenerating and blemishing the beauty innate to human existence. In this way, Obayashi creates a rift between his career and that of the international “mass media” industry, even domestically within Japan he has always been an outsider, cult hero. Adorno and Horkheimer have argued that “Culture is infecting everything with sameness”1, which implies some platitudinal position that culture has reached, which through the cinema of Obayashi I will contest.
House and Labyrinth of Cinema both pollute and infect history with the promise of a youthful future. History is not immune to sameness, telling ourselves the same story again and again slowly begins to disavow and disown narratives not compatible or simply too strenuous or contradictory for the one being told. To inject a post-war narrative with prospects of a future is subversive and poignant. In House what begins as an innocuous summer adventure quickly becomes a menacing and hallucogenic murder factory. For Obayashi who lost so many to the bombing of Hiroshima, youth is as vulnerable as it is a powerful culturally ascending force. These young women are filmed at the beginning of the film doing choreographed dances down a set of stairs to the film’s theme music, radiant and optimistic. Each one of the young ladies is assigned a name that reflects some blatant and defining element of their personality, for example: Mac can’t stop herself from eating while Melody is obsessed with singing and music and then there’s Fantasy who’s always daydreaming. These young girls arrive at the house full of vitality and exuberance. The titular house then drains the women of the resilience and beauty they once had earlier in the film. In House, the past has a parasitic relationship to the future, where the malice and destruction chews and gnaws on the potential of a future. To bring in another Japanese filmmaker into this conversation, Sion Sono in his post-Fukushima series arrives at a similar albeit more devastating conclusion. His films Himizu, The Land of Hope, and The Whispering Star posit that rather than the future being darkened by the past, there is no future exactly because of our past. If there is a future for Sono it’s one of nuclear fallout, climate disaster or one where humanity is but an echo. Obayashi is less cynical on this point, though he understands the past as prescient, he also understands that the past is fundamentally malleable by way of the future.
Labyrinth of Cinema rectifies any pessimism that one could accuse Obayashi of in House. The film follows an old man who travels through time and space in a small vessel, he arrives at a theater in present day Japan where there is a showing of a film taking place, three men enter this theater and are mysteriously sucked into the film when lightning strikes. They search for the protagonist’s love interest as they work their way through pivotal moments in Japanese history. Obayashi films these moments in the style of how they’ve been filmed historically, so the samurai moments are filmed in a typical jidaigeki fashion as if the footage were from the 40’s and 50’s. Temporality is also material and Obayashi evokes this technologically by replicating the techniques of the past. Obayashi is arguing for continuity here, that there is some flow between technology, history and humanity that is seamlessly rendered in cinema. Contrary to Adorno’s assessment of culture that “The so-called leading idea is a filling compartment which creates order, not connections”1, Obayashi’s cinema is one only of connectivity and fluid interdependence, no element is insignificant, each idiosyncrasy is only there for chaos, entropy and disruption while remaining startlingly lucid and coherent. He is the only filmmaker beyond Melies who is obsessed with cinema as magic, cinema as spell, cinema as play and theoretically it’s easy to forget that there are filmmakers who still have such staggering belief in the transformative power of cinema.
Obayashi was diagnosed in 2017 with terminal cancer, he was supposed to die that same year, however, he persevered and created two final, seminal works Hangmatami and Labyrinth of Cinema. There is something poetic in how hopeful Obayashi’s final period was, he was never more assured of human existence than he was in the end. The two films I have seen from this twilight period are Seven Weeks (2014) and Labyrinth of Cinema (2019) and they could not be further from each other in terms of tone. Seven Weeks was made prior to Obayashi’s diagnosis and it’s an oddly dark film for the filmmaker. What begins with the death of a family member soonly evolves into a sprawling familial epic spanning generations between the present day mourning and the past. The melancholy of the past is heavy and palpable in this film, Obayashi handles the recent nuclear fallout with contrasting conversations amongst the young and old and their different relationship to nuclear energy. Contrastingly Labyrinth of Cinema is less focused on the familial unit, which in Seven Weeks is Obayashi’s focused site of historicity and cultural sadness. Memory resides within the family, lineages, heritage. The title of Seven Weeks is taken from the Japanese mourning period in which they spend seven weeks after a loved one has died remembering and supporting their memory, he champions his culture in this film as one that remembers. The film, like House, reveals itself to be a kind of ghost story, in which the past seeks reconciliation and peace within the present by being included within it, just because something has vanished to time doesn’t mean it’s presence disappears entirely with it. Cinema for Obayashi, is this ghost story, where inclusivity of the past is to exist itself, that to capture something on camera is to relegate it to history doomed to wander in this exact form forever. To love the cinema is to spend time amongst the dead.
In Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities Marco Polo describes the various kingdoms and lands of which the Kublai Khan presides over in poetic and abstract detail. In articulating the fictional city of Adelema Marco Polo notices in the citizens and inhabitants nothing but the faces of the dead, those who have come before. He remarks: “You reach a moment in life when, among the people you have known, the dead outnumber the living. And the mind refuses to accept more faces, more expressions: on every new face you encounter, it prints the old forms, for each one it finds the most suitable mask”2. To love movies is to engage with the gestures, mannerisms and activities of the deceased, to speak dead languages and whisper skeleton phrases. Cinema is a future harboring apparatus whose curse is it’s inevitable slide into the past, past becomes projected present. Obayashi believes that if the future holds any hope for us it’s in the promise for a cohesive, eclectic and complete timeline where history is something we are active participants and manipulators of and not something that simply happens to us. Cinema is commodity, industry and art, but it’s perhaps one of the few art forms that is relentlessly and unequivocally flexible in what it can amalgamate as part of itself.
Cinema is a commodity, but Obayashi, more than any filmmaker, is fearless in the face of this fact. This does not offend him as it has many theorists and filmmakers before him, much like Fellini who loved Goldfinger stating it’s a film that “pushes the cinema forward”, he sees all of cinema as part of a code that makes up a single matrix, a Hegelian, infinitely fragmenting dialectic stream that sores when the incongruities of various elements are in conflict with one another. If the helplessness and tyranny of the market is overwhelming at this moment it only means we are rushing towards a cataclysmic breaking point for the industry and therefore the medium at large since business and art are inextricably linked. So Obayashi argues, instead of excluding from the canon, we expand upon it, thereby rewriting the history of class struggle in the process. The greatest war has yet to be fought on the most elusive of fields: that prolonged battle between media and memory, technology and the tactile nostalgia of the human mind.