Born in 1938 in Onomichi, a port town facing Japan’s Inland Sea, Nobuhiko Obayashi began making experimental films in the 1960s and showing them at galleries and other sites around Tokyo. With lines forming around the block for these films, which captured the free-spirited, anything-goes mood of the times, Obayashi branched out into TV commercials. His ads featuring Charles Bronson, Kirk Douglas, Catherine Deneuve and other international stars had a freshness of style and humor that won him new fans.
In 1977 Obayashi made his feature debut with “House,” a horror-fantasy about a haunted house that devours its schoolgirl visitors. Critically pummeled on its release, this wildly imaginative and irresistibly charming film later became an international cult hit.
Obayashi went on to direct more fantasy-themed films featuring cute teens, including “School in the Crosshairs” (1982), “Transfer Student” (1982) and “The Little Girl Who Conquered Time” (1983). His main producer in this period was Haruki Kadokawa, an industry maverick who together with Obayashi and other directors churned out a profitable line of “idol” movies.
Obayashi branched out to more adult fare in the 1980s, 1990s and beyond including “Beijing Watermelon” (1989), a true-story drama about a Japanese greengrocer’s friendship with Chinese students, and “Turning Point” (1994), a drama about a woman journalist’s struggle to succeed in a male-dominated sector.
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In his later years Obayashi turned to the subject of Japan in World War II in films with a strong antiwar slant. After being diagnosed with stage-four terminal cancer, he directed “Hanagatami,” a drama based on a 1937 novel by Kazuo Dan about a group of youths leading a seemingly idyllic existence in a seaside town, but feeling the emotional pressure of gathering war clouds. Screened at the 2017 Tokyo International Film Festival, “Hanagatami” was widely assumed to be Obayashi’s swan song.
But he is back at TIFF again this year with “Labyrinth of Cinema,” a fantasy-drama about three young men who enter an old Onomichi theater in the present day – and find themselves transported back to 1945, just before the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Shot and edited by Obayashi while he was receiving cancer treatment, the film has his characteristic blend of surreal whimsy and heartfelt emotion.
TIFF will screen four other Obayashi films in a special tribute section, including “Hanagatami” (2017), “The Discarnates” (1988), “The Young and Wild” (1986) and “Miss Lonely” (1985). In addition, “Seijo Story – 60 Years of Making Films,” Isshin Inudo’s documentary about Obayashi and his spouse/producer Kyoko will debut in the TIFF Special Screenings section.
In recent days, the festival has announced that Obayashi will be recipient of a lifetime achievement award, in recognition of his “significant contribution to the film industry.” Awards will be presented to him and actor Tatsuya Nakadai at date that has yet to be confirmed.