“Cinema offers a kind of dreamlike eternity”: Talking to Filmmaker Nobuhiko Obayashi
By Aaron Cutler
The Japanese film I Are You, You Am Me (aka Exchange Student, 1982) lovingly tells a familiar tale. Its two main characters are Kazuo (Toshinori Omi) and Kazumi (Satomi Kobayashi), teenage male and female schoolmates in the small seaside city of Onomichi. Their initially rivalrous relationship transforms one day when, following a tumble down a Buddhist temple’s steps, they discover that they have magically exchanged bodies. They swear to keep the switch secret until they can figure out how to switch back and, during the weeks that follow, discover (along with new body parts) newfound wells of sensitivity and strength. By the time the film’s story concludes, both are more at home than before in being who they are.
A feeling of being at home runs throughout the work of Nobuhiko Obayashi, I Are You, You Am Me’s still-active director, who will attend a 35mm screening of the film at the Japan Society this Saturday night, as part of a retrospective, the largest such showcase of the filmmaker’s work ever organized within the US. Between November 20th and December 6th, the Japan Society will present ten of Obayashi’s forty-plus features and a key early short (1964’s Complexe). I Are You, You Am Me is characteristic both of his films and of his eternally sweet, gentle spirit.
Most viewers who are already familiar with Obayashi likely know him through his debut feature, House (aka Hausu, 1977, and screening opening night), a playfully self-parodying piece of horror about a group of young women who take a trip to a haunted countryside home. The film’s catchiest surface-level features (such as silly character names, a maiden-devouring piano, and myriad fast- and slow-motion-played scenes) push melodrama into camp, but beneath them is the group leader’s utterly sincere desire to get to know her deceased mother’s rural hometown.
Obayashi’s own hometown, Onomichi, figures prominently in several of his films, along with bittersweet living memories of them and a gentle pleasure sensed at recalling good times from a youthful past. Diverse films such as his Ozu homage Bound for the Fields, the Mountains and the Seacoast (1986, screening November 21), his teen rock musical The Rocking Horsemen (1992, screening November 22), his recounting of a long-concluded love affair called Haruka, Nostalgia (1993, screening November 22), and his recent, flashback-drenched family saga Seven Weeks (2014, screening December 6) all take a person’s desire to return to a lost home as their central theme.
These films and others by Obayashi call attention to cinema as a kind of home unto itself, as well as a tool with the power to conjure up other ones. Obayashi began his filmmaking with experimental shorts that overtly played upon genre conventions and film form, and has continued to play upon them throughout his narrative features. His films often contain the title card “A Movie,” and their main characters are often artists (sometimes even filmmakers) who make it their life’s work to revive the past both for their own delight and to delight other people.
The following interview with Nobuhiko Obayashi was conducted over Skype in advance of the Japan Society retrospective’s opening. The filmmaker spoke in Japanese, with Miwako Kitamura translating.
What is meaningful to you about the selection of films in this retrospective?
The retrospective’s selection of films was made by a professor from Yale University named Dr. Aaron Gerow. I wouldn’t have selected the movies myself. I am not focused on myself, but on the audience, who I would like just to see some enjoyable films. We have to enjoy ourselves at the cinema every time that we go.
I Are You, You Am Me
I was delighted to discover I Are You, You Am Me, which imbues a recognizable fantasy situation with a surprising emotional delicacy. Why did you make that film?
Japanese society entered a new era at the beginning of the 1980s, one in which many women went outside their homes to look for work. A number of these women believed that, in order to work well, they had to be like men. At this same time, many Japanese men also feared losing their masculinity. These misunderstandings among members of the two genders interested me, and I wanted to make a film that explored questions related to them. What is gender, I wondered? What makes a man a man, and a woman a woman? The idea of exchanging sexes came naturally from there.
If the main characters had been adults, the story might have become too focused upon a sexual element. I therefore decided to make them primary school students, as they had been in the film’s source story written by Hisashi Yamanaka (who also wrote the stories for five of my other films). I could not find actors the age of primary school students who were satisfying for the roles, though, so the film’s protagonists became high school students instead. This change still allowed me to focus on the universal processes of maturing and growing up.
The female lead in this film registers strongly, as do the girls in House, and the women in several of your retrospective’s other films, such as the title character of Sada (1998, screening November 22). Why is it important to you to depict strong female characters?
As you know, I am a man. I am always thinking about how hard it is to understand women, but I also believe that they should have power and leadership in order for us to live in a peaceful world.
With that said, I have always wanted for all of the characters in my films—both male and female—to be very strong. I have also always wanted for each of them to represent something about me, and for all of them to collectively reveal what I think about the world.
The world in your films is often centered upon a small town. Why do many of your films take place in the city of Onomichi in particular?
Onomichi was the location in the original story of I Are You, You Am Me, but it must be said as well that I was born there. When I was a teenager in the city, I was something of a degenerate. There were nine cinemas in town, and I would spend all day going between them. I left Onomichi after turning eighteen years old in order to attend university in Tokyo, but over time, I came to believe that everything in my filmed memories should be related to it. Onomichi is a special place for me.
My mother was a stunning woman to look at. When I returned home sometimes, I recognized that her face had gained wrinkles, and that each wrinkle told a story about the place. Her face contained sweet memories of Onomichi.
I mention my mother by way of comparison. In the early 1980s, Japan’s economy had developed, but a part of what that meant was that lots of people were destroying the country’s very beautiful rural areas. This was something very sad to me, and I felt that if Onomichi were to be redeveloped into a modern city, it would be as though my mother’s face had been destroyed. The loss of the area would also mean the loss of memory. So I wanted to preserve Onomichi on film.
Why has the theme of nostalgia always been important in your films?
If I had been a politician, then I would have opposed Japan’s development projects. I would have said that it was more important to preserve nostalgia and memory than to support modernization (and probably no one would have listened). However, I chose to be a filmmaker. I decided to put what was important to me into my films, just in case it might someday be gone.
After I made I Are You, You Am Me, the Japanese government decided not to scrap-and-rebuild—as had been its frequent policy—but rather to preserve Onomichi as it was. So the story had a happy ending.
Did you feel a devotion to the place?
Devotion has always been fundamentally important to me. I wanted to satisfy my feeling of devotion to Onomichi, not only because it is my hometown, but because I would like for everyone watching my films to think about his or her hometown as well. No one should want to destroy his or her hometown. So I hoped to set an example.
The word for “hometown” in Japanese is “furusato.” I call my films “furusato movies.” I am not only talking about one place when I use that name—we should all think about and treasure sweet memories.
Are you making a new film?
Yes, I am, and I will speak very generally about it. Next year I will turn seventy-eight years old. I know a lot of firsthand information about Japanese history, going back to World War II. The most that I can do with my films, I believe, is to write a kind of letter to younger generations about what I went through. Human life has a limit. However, cinema offers a kind of dreamlike eternity. This is why films should make us happy.