Nobuhiko Obayashi, the former experimental filmmaker and ad man turned mainstream director whose eccentric, colorful style was a shot in the arm for the Japanese film industry in the late 1970s and ‘80s, has died. Obayashi had been battling lung cancer for years, far outliving his initial life expectancy—in August 2016, he was told he had three months to live—and he died at home in Tokyo yesterday, according to Yahoo! Japan and Kyodo News. He was 82.
Obayashi is best known abroad for the 1977 cult classic Hausu, a kaleidoscopic, surrealist horror film inspired by one of his young daughter Chigumi’s nightmares. An utterly unique and unforgettable movie-watching experience about a Scooby-Doo-esque gang of teenage girls tormented by a demonic cat in a psychedelic haunted house, the film is typical of Obayashi’s energetic, fantastical approach to filmmaking, which earned him the nickname “wizard of cinema” in his native country.
Obayashi got his start in Tokyo’s vibrant experimental filmmaking scene in the late ‘50s and ‘60s, learning as he went alongside artists like Yoko Ono and filmmakers like Takahiko Iimura, with whom he founded the Film Independent collective in 1964. Obayashi’s radical politics and free-thinking explorations of the global cultural youthquake led to innovative 8mm and 16mm shorts like The Man Who Ate (1963) and Emotion (1966), films the director once estimated screened at 60 percent of Japanese colleges in the late ‘60s.
These early works were influenced by the similarly idiosyncratic work of A Hard Day’s Night director Richard Lester, as well as Obayashi’s firmly held, lifelong anti-war beliefs. The first brought kinetic stop-motion, collage, and pixelation; the second brought themes of disillusionment informed by Obayashi’s experiences as an elementary school student during World War II. “Adults always lie. That’s what my generation learned,” he told Mubi in 2019.
Obayashi’s experimental work attracted the attention of Japanese advertising executives, who began hiring him to bring some of that hip, youthful energy to their TV commercials. Needing a way to pay his bills—in ‘60s Japan, as in 2020s America, experimental filmmaking isn’t exactly lucrative—Obayashi agreed, and ended up directing more than 2,000 TV commercials before transitioning to feature filmmaking full time with Hausu.
Among his innovations as a commercial director was helping to popularize the practice of hiring Western movie stars for Japanese TV commercials, a much beloved (and lampooned) tradition that continues to this day. Perhaps the most famous of Obayashi’s ad works is his series of Mandom cologne ads starring Charles Bronson, which frequently feature on found-footage compilations and Alamo Drafthouse theater pre-shows.
After the box-office success of Hausu in Japan, Obayashi became an in-demand director for teen-oriented vehicles for contemporary pop stars. He broke into the mainstream with 1981's School In The Crosshairs, starring teen idol Hiroko Yakushimaru. But although they were aimed at adolescents, these films were fueled by the same anarchic energy as his experimental works: School In The Crosshairs, about a psychic teenager defending her school from fascist aliens, opens with a mind-bending psychedelic sequence and features some delightfully bizarre practical effects designed by the director himself.
Another notable ‘80s hit, 1987's The Drifting Classroom, was based on a manga by Kazuo Umezu, the godfather of Japanese horror manga and an ideal match for Obayashi’s style. And perhaps because of his surrealist bent, the influence of Obayashi’s ‘80s films continues to echo through Japanese animation. 1983's The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, from the novel by Yasutaka Tsutsui, was also adapted by anime legend Mamoru Hosoda in 2006, and 1982's Exchange Student has the same setup as the 2016 anime hit Your Name.
But although he’s best known for his horror, sci-fi, and fantasy work, Obayashi directed films in every genre—all filtered through Obayashi’s unique sensibility, of course. His 1998 film Sada reimagines the story of Sada Abe, the geisha whose murder of her lover by erotic asphyxiation also inspired In The Realm Of The Senses, as a gauzy Hollywood Technicolor romance, the same approach he took to telling the story of cynical postwar Japanese youth in Hanatagami (2017). His final film, Labyrinth Of Cinema, was originally scheduled to be released this weekend in Japan, before it was delayed by COVID-19.
Obayashi was feted by the Tokyo Film Festival with a retrospective in 2019, for which he wrote in a statement:
“Live freely. That’s the mark of peace,” said my father. He gave me an 8mm camera as if it were his memento when I moved to Tokyo at 18. I screened my first 8mm film in one corner of a Ginza art gallery, which earned international recognition and was acclaimed as the birth of a new film artist. Since then, I have been making personal films with funds earned by creating TV commercials for 60 years. Invited by the major studio Toho, despite being an outsider, I shot House, which allowed me to recognize that even an aesthetic literary work could be adapted to the commercial film genre. Although I had the experience of being a naively patriotic supporter of Japan during World War II, I have continued to create films in a variety of genres that imply an antiwar stance. It has been 61 years since my wife, Kyoko Obayashi, prepared herself to become “the wife of a struggling auteur.” I have worked hard to create films even today with Kyoko, who has supported my films by connecting them with the world, saying “I’m your first audience.” We have also had the support of our daughter Chigumi, who was one of the original writers of House at the age of 11, her husband and manga artist Takehito Moriizumi, and close friends from the older and newer generations. It was difficult to select the titles for this TIFF tribute, but I hope you will watch my rarely screened films. As the years roll by, there are many more personal films being made, as I always hoped. I hope the audience will enjoy both the signs of freedom and of restricted freedoms in my work. It would be fun if my true character is revealed.
Hausu, Sada, and Emotion are currently available for streaming on the Criterion Channel.