Nobuhiko Obayashi, Unpredictable Japanese Director, Dies at 82


Nobuhiko Obayashi, an idiosyncratic Japanese filmmaker whose wide-ranging résumé included a horror movie about a house full of furniture that eats schoolgirls, a fantasy about a boy who befriends a six-inch-tall samurai and an antiwar trilogy that he completed while being treated for cancer, died on April 10 in Tokyo. He was 82.

The cause was lung cancer, which was first diagnosed in 2016, The Associated Press said, citing an announcement on the website of his latest film, “Labyrinth of Cinema.”

Mr. Obayashi’s startling feature debut, in 1977, was “House,” a demented horror movie that is more comic than scary. The Los Angeles Times called it “one of the most enduringly — and endearingly — weird cult movies of the last few decades.”

Reviewing it in The New York Times in 2010, when it had a theatrical run at the IFC Center in Manhattan in advance of a DVD release, Manohla Dargis described the goings-on.

“This might be about a haunted house,” she wrote, “but it’s the film that is more truly possessed: In one scene a piano bites off the fingers of a musician tickling its keys; in another a severed head tries to take a bite out of a girl’s rear, snapping at the derrière as if it were an apple. Later a roomful of futons goes on the attack.”

Mr. Obayashi followed “House” with several other films about young people. Some had supernatural powers, as in “The Little Girl Who Conquered Time” (1983), about a time traveler. “The Rocking Horsemen” (1992) was a comedy about Japanese youngsters in the 1960s who discover the American rock group the Ventures’ recording of “Pipeline” and are inspired to form their own band.

In the special-effects-filled fantasy adventure “Samurai Kids” (1993), an 8-year-old boy encounters an ancient samurai warrior who is just six inches tall, allowing Mr. Obayashi to have some fun by making a cat look gigantic and a crow loom like a jetliner.

“Nobuhiko Obayashi is a real fantasist,” Donald Richie wrote in a brief review of that film in The International Herald Tribune. “Through fast cutting, witty detail and extraordinary care, he effortlessly tosses off his prodigious events and turns a kid movie into emotion-packed magic.”

Late in Mr. Obayashi’s career came his antiwar trilogy, “Casting Blossoms to the Sky” (2012), “Seven Weeks” (2014) and “Hanagatami” (2017). The third of those, based on a 1937 novella by Kazuo Dan, was a film he had wanted to make 40 years earlier, at the beginning of his career.

“But it was an economic boom time in Japan, driven by consumerism,” he told Asia Times in 2017. “Everyone had forgotten the war, and I realized it wasn’t the right time.”

Whatever the subject, Mr. Obayashi’s films were inventive both visually and in their storytelling.

“Obayashi unnerved audiences through a strange and uncanny admixture of absurdist humor, sexual innuendo, violence and melancholy,” Josh Siegel, a film curator at the Museum of Modern Art, said by email.

Japan Society, when it mounted an Obayashi retrospective in New York in 2015, called him simply an “endlessly innovative, singular film artist.”

Mr. Obayashi was born on Jan. 9, 1938, in Onomichi, in the prefecture whose capital in Hiroshima.

He said he first became enthralled with film when, at age 3, he found a projector in his home and, thinking it was some sort of toy train, began cranking the handle. The image it was projecting began to move.

“That really appealed to me,” he said through a translator in a talk at the Japan Society retrospective, “this idea of something that’s completely still starting to take on life and moving. That was really my first encounter with film.”

Mr. Siegel said the atomic bombing of Hiroshima always haunted Mr. Obayashi and might have led him to the postwar collective of artists, writers, performers and filmmakers known as the Art Theatre Guild, who, Mr. Siegel said, “rebelled in politically and aesthetically extremist ways against the jingoist demands of self-sacrifice and unquestioning obedience to authority that had led to Japan’s engagement in the war.”

Mr. Obayashi moved to Tokyo in the late 1950s and began experimenting with eight-millimeter films, and by the 1960s some of his work was being shown in screenings of art films. A producer from an advertising concern was at one such screening and offered Mr. Obayashi the chance to make short commercials. The result was a series of trippy ads, some featuring Western movie stars.

One in particular has become the stuff of legend. Two minutes long and invoking soft-core pornography, it features Charles Bronson, who was popular in Japan after his film “Once Upon a Time in the West” (1968) caught on there, ripping his shirt off and dousing himself in a fragrance called Mandom.

Mr. Obayashi’s wife, Kyoko, started out as an actress and had a small role in “House” but later became his producer. Their daughter, Chigumi, came up with the story that was turned into “House” (“Hausu” in Japan). Steven Spielberg also had something to do with that film, though inadvertently — Mr. Obayashi said that Toho studios, which hired him to make a feature on the strength of his popular TV commercials, had noted that Mr. Spielberg’s “Jaws” (1975) was a huge hit.

“They asked, ‘Do you have a film that’s similar to sharks attacking humans?’” he told the online magazine The Notebook in 2019. “And so I consulted my daughter Chigumi, and ‘Hausu’ was born.”

Mr. Obayashi made more than 40 films in all. His wife and daughter survive him.

His movies were often greeted with mixed reviews. For instance, Mr. Richie was less taken with “Sada” (1998), a sendup on the life of Sada Abe, the protagonist of Nagisa Oshima’s 1976 film, “In the Realm of the Sense.”

“Obayashi’s strong point is usually his insouciance,” Mr. Richie wrote in a review, “but here nonchalant unconcern becomes small-mindedness. Sada deserves a lot better.”

Mr. Obayashi, though, was all about challenging viewers. In a 2014 interview with Tokyo Weekender, he admitted that he did not follow the usual practice of starting with a script and following its structure.

“The shooting is very random,” he said. “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.”

“I call it a ‘charming chaos,’” he continued. “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.”



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