Thursday, 16 April 2020

Nobuhiko Ôbayashi

As a belated tribute to director Nobuhiko Ôbayashi, who passed away last week, here are a set of screengrabs taken, not from his astounding debut feature ‘House’ (1977), but from 1981’s lesser known (in the West at least) ‘Nerawareta Gakuen’ (variously translated as ‘School in the Cross-Hairs’ or ‘The Aimed School’).

Whilst I’m not currently well placed to present much of an overview of Ôbayashi’s wider life and work, these two films alone see him carving out an aesthetic for himself which remains completely unique, mixing unashamedly mainstream (and distinctly female-focused) teen / pop narratives with extreme and disorientating avant garde visual techniques, flung together in a hyperactive and self-parodic fashion that sometimes borders on complete sensory overload.

At the risk of stating the obvious, there is something specifically Japanese about the delirious tonal disjuncture of Ôbayashi’s work which remains difficult for us Western viewers to really get our heads around, even four decades later. Although ‘House’ has (understandably) gained a pretty substantial cult following off the back of its sheer WTF factor (personally, I’ll never forget having my mind shredded to pieces when I watched a now deleted youtube video of the film’s climax, sans context, about ten years ago), it’s worth remembering that both ‘House’ and ‘School..’ were big commercial hits in Japan, and that Obayashi has continued working more-or-less within the country’s cultural mainstream right up to the present day.

From an outsider’s perspective at least, the influence of this aesthetic upon a whole a swathe of subsequent Japanese cinema – from the hyper-obnoxious ‘punk cinema’ of Sogo Ishii, to the lighter/zanier moments in the canons of Miike and Sono, to the work of directors like Tetsuya Nakashima (‘Kamikaze Girls’ (2004)) - seems self-evident.

Of course there are over forty other movies by Ôbayashi which must necessarily go unmentioned here, simply because for the most part they’ve proved pretty difficult to track down with English sub-titles. I do however have a couple of bootlegs lined up (including his 1977 adaptation of Osamu Tezuka’s ‘Black Jack’, staring Jô Shishido no less), so perhaps we’ll be able to return to some of those here at some point in the future? For now though – yet another R.I.P. to add to 2020’s grim tally.

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