I Was Born, But: Nobuhiko Obayashi and Japan’s Lost Children

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Nobuhiko Obayashi is most famous in this country for a film about a house that eats the young.

In Japan, Obayashi is known for his films that celebrate the laze and haze and promise of youth in its natural season, summer. These are his furusato—or hometown—movies, as he calls them: films conceived in close consultation with their locales, suffused with the particular light of a place or its singular air, where the action is as much determined by the ungainly curve of an ancient street as it is by the generic demands of the youth film. Familiar adolescent conflicts are there, and occasionally inflected with a touch of the supernatural—as in his great body swap comedy Exchange Students—but they are always enveloped and nurtured by the real communities in which these young people live. Summer is, then, Obayashi’s natural season too: when the heat ticks up childhood spills out into the streets, all the better for detailing the public spaces where communities educate their children through performance, ritual, and, importantly for Obayashi, festivals. In His Motorbike, Her Island a young man falls in love on summer vacation, with an island first, a young woman second. When she takes him home, the joyous dancing at a local festival puzzles him. Isn’t this festival to honor the dead? Yes, she tells him. They dance for the people who were born, lived, and died on this island.

People are inextricable from place. Obayashi himself has returned frequently to his hometown of Onomichi, despite relocating to Tokyo as a young man, and has set at least a dozen movies there. The Inland Sea of his youth exercises a relentless undertow on his career. Even when Obayashi ventures to somebody else’s furusato, he approaches the place like a man recently relocated but intent on making a new home—like, say, one of his many transfer students or, in The Deserted City, a young man on an extended holiday. That film drifts along the old canal streets of Yanagawa, fluid byways that lead our young man closer and closer to the heart of the town. But summer rolls by too quickly. He boards a train back to Tokyo, still—and perhaps, forever—an outsider. A home lost before it’s even home.

Obayashi is not, however, a nostalgist, at least not in the ideological sense of the term. He returns the word to its root meaning: to yearn for home is a kind of pain. In The Discarnates, a middle-aged man, Harada, relives his lost youth by day and returns by night to his modernist bachelor pad afflicted with some horror movie disease. It’s the furusato movie zombified by the pull of the past (literal Japanese title: My Summer with the Zombies). But Obayashi still has his preferences: boom economy Tokyo is an anonymous building barely distinguishable from the overpass next door; old Tokyo is 1950s Asakusa, a timeworn neighborhood, proletarian and sun-kissed, where a lonely screenwriter can encounter his long dead parents. And there’s no greater tragedy in Obayashi than a stolen childhood. But if The Discarnates is a lament, it’s not for Harada. The film ends with Harada’s estranged son by his hospital bed, a reminder that by retreating into his own past Harada risks squandering his son’s present. You’re only young once.

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Obayashi is a moralist. Youth is sacred. It must be safeguarded above all. Hausu’s anglophone cult—which, it’s worth noting, exists in isolation from the rest of Obayashi’s career—has tended to obscure this fact, predicated as it is on a total inversion of this principle: namely, that some delirious sadism lies at the heart of Obayashi’s vision. There’s no denying the gleefulness on display in Hausu, but when contextualized by his other work, the film’s death parade appears much more complicated. What is a house if not a home? And what to say of a home that bloodies its maw with its own children?

In 1944, after a number of critical defeats, Japan lowered the conscription age to 15. Obayashi was born in 1938. He would have been six at the time, obviously too young for the draft, but old enough to witness his country marching teenagers to the battlefront. And At 80 years old he’s one of the few working filmmakers in Japan with a living, tangible memory of Japanese militarism. That the legacy of World War II informs Obayashi as an artist is undeniable—Hausu is, after all, the story of a young woman robbed of marriage by the war who, years later, enacts her own generational holocaust—but he has addressed it directly only a handful of times. When he did first address it, with 1984’s Bound for the Fields, the Mountains, and the Seacoast, he produced what is perhaps the singular achievement of his career, the greatest Japanese movie of the 1980s, and the clearest statement of his moral principles to date.

Made for the Art Theater Guild, who for a few decades specialized in a unique blend of popular cinema and art cinema, Bound for the Fields, the Mountains, and the Seacoast looks like the 1930s brought back to life: Ozuian compositions, a small town world imported from the Shochiku lot, and grainy black and white to emulate old film stock. But as is Obayashi’s wont, he locates the aesthetic at its extremities, subtly blowing out the contrast, so that the film takes on an irradiated light not entirely accurate for the era, and training his eye on frames too rectilinear even for Ozu-sensei. It’s a dream vision of the ‘30s.

And like all dreams, it allows for possibilities denied by life and history. The film follows a group of kids in Onomichi over one summer. Initially, the war rages just beyond their horizons, unremarked on save the conspicuous absence of young men in town. But the era’s militarized culture subtly creeps into the consciousness of the children, who turn their idle play into war games, dividing themselves into tribes and then pitting themselves against one another. Obayashi films their games with good humor, recreating the slapstick of silent Ozu, until the children begin to sense the price of their latent fascism. Sexual slavery ensnares one of the boy’s older sisters and they turn their sights on a new target: their hometown itself. They spread across the village inflicting a series elaborate of pranks on the adult world. The children enact, in miniature, an imagined victory over fascism: they rescue young women from prostitution and thwart the conquests of a pompous army officer, the film’s clearest standin for the state. But true victory is impossible. In what must count as the saddest scene in Obayashi’s work, three girls temporarily freed from prostitution slowly trace their steps back to their masters.

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Back in the schoolyard, with the children finally tamed and regimented into military formations, the state delivers its reprobation. Government dignitaries stand atop a platform and extol the nation’s martial values. Suddenly a chasm opens beneath the stage, which sends the adults tumbling into a mushroom cloud of dust. “We burned the remains of our dreams. Our last practical joke.” The children dance. And then Obayashi cuts to Hiroshima. The dream is over. History reasserts itself.

Hanagatami opens with—among a hundred other images—a CGI simulacrum of that Onomichi schoolyard. Obayashi’s newest film, completed after a 40 year gestation and in the face of a terminal cancer diagnosis, recasts key images in new, digital forms. The youth films cited above happen to typify Obayashi’s more classical visual tendencies. But anyone who’s seen Hausu knows that Obayashi is equally capable of baroque excess, of blasting the screen with color and layering a dizzying number planes over the image with mattes and optical effects. Digital technology merely expands Obayashi’s existing toolkit. A young woman’s bedroom morphs into the sea, scarecrows become soldiers marching to war, and everything is wallpapered with phantasmagoric green screen. Digital also suggests, by its very nature, an alienation from the past, its irretrievability in the present. The grainy tactility of Bound for the Mountains, the Fields, and the Seacoast puts the ‘30s just within reach. No matter how beautiful the images in Hanagatami—and they are very beautiful—their digital sheen pushes wartime Japan further into the realm of simulation.

This sense of virtual replication extends, notably, to Obayashi’s performers. Hanagatami belongs to his youth film lineage: it traces four secondary school friends who, in various ways, are damned by the war’s tightening grip on their lives. And yet, Obayashi populates the film almost exclusively with adult actors—some noticeably middle-aged—dressed as children. The performers appear as unreal as the digital aesthetic, another indication that the experiences of those people who were born, lived, and died during the war are in danger of becoming inaccessible in the present. Obayashi’s casting choice is also a kind of premature aging, as if childhood has already been stripped from these kids. Which is, of course, a fear that animates so much of Obayashi’s work, one that echoes all the way back to Hausu: is Japan destined, forever, to devour its young?

Hanagtami is also a furusato movie. Place, even when obscured by layers of post production effects, remains as crucial as ever. Obayashi produced the movie in tandem with the community in Karatsu, a village on Japan’s western coast where the film is set. A local landmark—a mountainous island just off shore—hovers in the background of many scenes, and though it almost always appears as a digital insert, it functions as a totem rooting the film in space. And Karatsu provides Obayashi with another chance to shoot a local festival—maybe his greatest such sequence. The shadow of war disappears, briefly, as the townspeople line the streets for an annual parade of wooden floats. Obayashi lightens the mood of the film too, briefly shifting his focus from the central characters to an older man speaking to a young boy. The man describes, with perfect local flavor, his personal history with the festival, its communal importance, and the ways in which this boy, in due time, will be enfolded into the town ritual. “Those who leave Karatsu return for the festival,” he says. At precisely that moment Obayashi cuts to a young man performing a military salute. He will not come home again.

“Have you seen Humanity and Paper Balloons?” asks the town teacher, as he too is marched off to die in Manchuria. “Yamanaka said, ‘Sadly, that movie was my last.’ His swan song.” Given his age and his health, one wonders if Obayashi is not himself pondering end things. Lost textures; lost memories; lost children. Hanagatami possesses undimmed energy, to be sure, but it seems less like youthfulness recaptured in old age and more like the restless thoughts of a man with much left to say who recognizes that he must say it now. And so he lays down an ultimate statement of principle, spoken near the end, too late for some, but soon enough for us: “I won’t accept that youth is expendable.”

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