Nobuhiko Obayashi has been making films since the 1960s, but was little known outside Japan for years. That began to change with the international cult success of House, a genre mashup of horror, fantasy and teen idol flicks that was Obayashi’s first full feature.
Sparked by a suggestion from Obayashi’s young daughter that he make a scary movie about a house that eats its inhabitants, House became a box office smash on its release in 1977, though critics mostly found the film offputtingly odd, or completely incomprehensible.
None of this fazed Obayashi, who went on to a storied career making everything from groundbreaking sci-fi/fantasy films, including the 1983 hit The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, to heartwarming dramas set in his hometown, the Inland Sea port of Onomichi.
At age 78, the indefatigable Obayashi is still making films, most recently Hanagatami, a drama based on a famous Noh play set for release next summer. He has also been feted at foreign festivals, including at April’s Udine Far East Festival in Udine, Italy. Four of his early features were screened in a section devoted to Japanese sci-fi and fantasy films, with Obayashi in attendance.
Waggling his hand in his signature I Love You gesture (forefinger and little finger extended), his face wreathed in smiles, Obayashi was an immediate hit with the Udine audience, who gave House a rousing 10-minute ovation. In his meetings with the press and fans at the festival he discussed his philosophy of filmmaking with the passion and eloquence of a born teacher, though given the rhapsodic reactions of those assembled, “guru” might be a closer fit.
In my own one-to-one with Obayashi, he reminisced about his start in the early 1960s as an experimental filmmaker, back then a rare breed. Obayashi and his fellow cinematic rebels were inspired by Thomas Edison, not the likes of the globally acclaimed Yasujiro Ozu. Obayashi explained that: “Movies are a product of scientific invention, so new types of film expression are inventions too. Inventing something new is what movies are all about.”
His 8mm and 16mm films, made with an uninhibited invention that felt fresh to the era’s young cineastes, who formed lines that stretched around the block. This success led to work in the then-new field of TV commercials. Obayashi’s ads — using Charles Bronson, Kirk Douglas Catherine Deneuve and other international stars to pitch local products with style and humor — sent sales soaring and had a lasting impact on the Japanese ad business.
This success led to an offer from the Toho studio to direct a feature film that could compete with Hollywood blockbusters like Jaws. The result was House. It took Obayashi two years to bring the film to the screen. “I thought, if I just have this one chance, I want to make a Japanese film like no other,” he said, “I was given a chance to work with a major studio, so I felt I had a responsibility to go over-the-top avant-garde.”
That he did, despite the opposition of Toho producers, who thought that the maverick Obayashi would ruin the studio’s reputation. Instead he made a film that, nearly four decades later, is recognized as a classic. “I think it’s the job of indies to create movies for the future in the present,” he said. “The film doesn’t have to be a success right now. When I made House, my generation’s philosophy was that the value of a work of art is decided 100 years after its creator’s death … So back then I thought that House would be understood in 100 years — but it only took 30.”