In the pantheon of great Japanese directors the name Obayashi Nobuhiko might not immediately stand out, and until a few years ago, the man and his work were all but unknown in the West. That all changed in 2009 when his debut feature, 1977's House
, was pulled out of retirement and shown to a packed audience at the New York Asian Film Festival, garnering acclaim and subsequent restored home releases in England and the US, courtesy of the Criterion Collection and Masters of Cinema.
House is a work of frenetic, mad genius. The story of a group of high school girls who visit a peculiar old woman in a haunted country cottage is an absolute tour de force of wild, colourful visual effects and a mash-up of different genres, including horror, comedy, fantasy and even musical. Obayashi has proved incredibly prolific, releasing close to 50 films since his debut, and it was great to see the world premiere of his latest film, Seven Weeks (No no Nana Nanoka) as the closing film at this year's Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival.
Seven Weeks follows the lives of several members of the same family as they gather to mourn the death of the family's patriarch, Suzuki Mitsuo. Suzuki's past is recounted by the surviving members as secrets are uncovered and relationships explored. It's a narratively dense film with its own visual style and kinetic editing that threatens to lose the viewer amidst complex themes of war-time guilt, the loss of communities and the macabre relationships between the living and the dead. Like House, it's an utterly unique film and a singular artistic vision that's complex, mysterious and utterly deserving of the widest possible audience.
Obayashi arrived in Yubari on the last day of the festival to show his film and James Marsh and I were able to sit down with him the morning after and discuss Seven Weeks and his career in general. The director emanates a dignified aura of cool that only certain creatively-minded older Japanese men seem able to carry off. The veteran director was open and honest and talked at length about his feelings on his films, art in the movies and the larger messages he strives to convey.
ScreenAnarchy - The main themes of SEVEN WEEKS seem to be the lingering effects of WWII and also the redevelopment of dying towns. Did you have a personal connection to these themes, why were they important to you?
Obayashi Nobuhiko: I am 76 years old and my generation is the last that has actually been through war. Just like with House we made this film as a message to the people who don't know the horrors of war and the hard times.
House expressed the atomic bomb for children using extremely childish imagery that they can understand. I made this film to reevaluate the Japanese history since the Pacific War as a whole.
After March 11th and the nuclear disaster I wanted people to rethink post-war history again. I wanted to shoot this film as a documentary, a project of movie journalism. It is purely because of commercialism that there are only two types of movie format, the feature length and short movie. Since Edison we've been trying to figure out the possibilities of what movies can do but after 3/11 I feel like the whole medium of film has lost its power. So right now I think I'm trying to break out of this regular format which I feel is very commercial and give film the power of free fantasy and make it more deliverable to the people. I decided to create a "movie journal" like "Essays in Idleness" in Japanese literature, which is a collection of information that one sees or hears. I think my film is similar to that art form which is easy to explain, think about and discuss.
Last year Miyazaki Hayao released THE WIND RISES to criticism both in Japan and abroad for the way it tackled the war. Have you seen the film and where do you stand on this issue?
Well, I know Miyazaki-san and Takahata-san (director of The Tale of Princess Kaguya) and The Wind Rises is the first of his films that I really want to watch but I haven't seen it yet. I'm really good friends with Takahata and he told me both of these films were very influenced by the events of March 11th. Without this event these films wouldn't have been made. Princess Kaguya would have been a much shallower, more commercial film but it's got a lot of substance in it now. To them it's a very personal film, because of that Ghibli could possibly have gone broke but that was ok with them!
While you're obviously trying to tell this timely, cautionary tale to the younger generation, how it's up to them now to rebuild the country, there is also, particularly in the first hour of the film, many family dynamics at work and generational elements to the story. How did you approach creating that family structure and what your process for developing this complicated family?
Shooting was very similar to 3/11; it was very chaotic. Films are usually shot based on the completed script, but I do it differently, the shooting is very random. It's almost like making a sculpture and taking out little pieces and then putting them back in. That's the editing process. But what I do is take that little piece out and put it somewhere else and see what happens, maybe create a little dent and then put it back. The whole process is pretty chaotic and I create this whole chaotic monster and give it to the audience with no explanation and no clarity. I call it a 'charming chaos', I want to communicate with the audience, I want them to find their own way and get them lost first and have them find their own way back.
As part of that process, do you use multiple cameras and improvisation with your actors?
There are four cameras and an extra as a backup. I shoot a whole sequence with no rehearsal at all, there's a completed script and the actors remember all their lines so that in the performance they become the character. Sometimes weird and surprising words come out and I'll use that instead of the script. Single takes are the best, I always tell the actors there are no second takes in life.
In that case did you do a lot of rehearsals with the cast? Group work and having them interact as a family unit before shooting?
No, no rehearsal at all. It depends on the film, sometimes I do rehearsal but not this time. Ever since 3/11 happened I have been shooting without rehearsal. The natural disaster brings too much pain to people but there is so much we can learn from it. We have to consistently create the same chaotic situation in shooting, so no rehearsal, this creative process is because of that.
Miyazaki and Yamada Yoji and others all had this creative structure before 3/11 but post-events they just completely changed their methods, always thinking what happens next and not preparing. That's what Japanese artists are doing right now.
To what extent was this a conscious decision between you all as a group? With a number of filmmakers all doing the same thing, have you had any kind of conversation with them about working in this way?
We are all the same generation, as I said, the last generation that have been through war and we are doing something so experimental that the younger generation is completely surprised by it right now. There's a reality to our generation that's we've been silent for the past 50 years and now we have to speak up. That's out identity as creators of expression, of art.
I noticed that as far as the family dynamic goes in this film, and your others, you seem to focus on female characters being thrown into chaotic situations. To what extent does that represent your own interests in terms of the stories you want to tell?
I am old and a man and I was trying to capture the exact opposite, which is female and very young! Young girls are the most charming and mysterious and impossible to understand so by capturing and expressing all those women I'm describing myself. Economics and politics is all about 'me, me, me', and 'what I want', but when it comes to art it's about seeing the other person and seeing yourself in them. That's the process of art.
How do you feel about the recent renaissance of HOUSE abroad. It's been rediscovered, re-released and film fans of a whole new generation are experiencing it. How do you feel about this?
When I was a child people said that art would only truly be appreciated 100 years after its release, not at the time the artist creates it. Commercialism dictates that something has to be made to make an immediate profit, but just like Takahata and Miyazaki feel right now, post 3/11, they have to live as artists. What they make doesn't have to be appreciated right now and doesn't need to be understood right now. We are creating art that people in 100 years can appreciate, so even if we don't make a hit that's ok. Of course we are capable of making billions and billions of dollars if we follow the rules but that's not what we are thinking right now. It's not a success, it's a message how we feel as artists.
But you need a certain amount of commercial success in order to fund future projects. Has the resurgence of interest in HOUSE and as a result your career, made it easier for you to get your recent films made?
Yes, it's really benefiting my creative work. When I made House obviously it would have been so much easier for me to make a commercially viable film, which would be nominated in first place in a prestigious film magazine, but then I didn't make that choice. All the adults will say "that's not a film, that's not a film" but the children will appreciate it. The reason I believed in it was because my daughter was seven years old back then and she believed in it (Obayashi's daughter Chigumi originally conceived the story of House in a dream, whig she recounted to her father). Thirty years later my daughter helped me make this film too.
What's important was that back then when I was making House it was my future dream, my future prospect. Of course the reality is you have to make a profitable film to keep creating work but I think the artist should always have this future vision. I believe that this movie, Seven Weeks will be appreciated in ten maybe twenty years, then that will be the Japanese film standard, I know it. The younger generation that is watching this film, those eyes will tell it all. Kurosawa used to tell me I will live until 400 years old, then I can confirm that all my film dreams will come true. That's the destiny of the artist. He only lived to be 80 years old but his films will live for much longer.
HOUSE is a very effects laden film, there are lots of visual tricks, and there's a sort of similar style in this film too. Are you using the same kind of techniques to create certain visual effects that you did back then?
I believe that film is a creation of science and technology so I think that movies are a combination of expression and invention. That's a movie. So back then when I was working on House I was aiming to make this film the ultimate optical work, that was a very emotional part of the film. Now with this film I tried to create the ultimate digital work, so it's always invention, invention, invention.
In cinema now the big issue is the transfer to digital, there's a lot of talk of this being a huge problem but I say film is an invention, you have to accept that. It's like when film went to sound and then to colour and recently to 3D, it's always a big issue but what's important is that what film can do digital cannot do and vice versa. People talk about film disappearing and going digital, but that's not true, film has to be preserved because each format is different. So as I was trying to make the ultimate digital platform I wasn't thinking about film at all, I was only thinking of what digital can do.
So now when the younger generation watches my film and thinks, "Oh, I'm going to become like Obayashi and hire digital equipment and expensive stuff", that's just wrong. I want to encourage them to think; "I can do this with one pc and one video camera". I wanted to give hope and encouragement to the younger generation and prove that this is real. Even though we were using four cameras, when something was missing I would just pull out my camera phone and keep shooting! That's the science and technology part.
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