Nobuhiko Obayashi, Vagabond of Time

10 November 2009
picture: Nobuhiko Obayashi, Vagabond of Time


Nobuhiko Obayashi (1938- ) is perhaps best known outside of Japan for the audacity and sheer randomness of his debut feature, the youth-horror escapade House (Hausu, 1977). But while House continues to circulate in the confines of a cult cinema context, the film is but one hinge in a remarkably multifaceted career.

Obayashi started out in his twenties doing experimental works in 8 and 16 millimeter, screening with the Art Theatre Guild and eventually becoming a member of the Japan Filmmaker's Cooperative in the 1960s (along with Takahiko Iimura, Donald Richie, and others). As he described in a recent talk, at the time he arrived in Tokyo in the late 1950s there were only two other filmmakers in Japan making art films on 8 millimeter - Yoichi Takabayashi and Takahiko Iimura. The medium was generally considered a hobbyist format and restricted to home movies. But for Obayashi, lacking a degree from a top university and with little interest in working his way up the chain of the film studio hierarchies, 8 millimeter became a (relatively) inexpensive way to pursue his own style of filmmaking. As a means to purchase film stock, he took a part time job making short promotional films for local businesses, to be shown before feature films in local movie theaters. These became his first publicly screened works. [ 1 ]

picture: films by Nobuhiko Obayashi

Meanwhile, Obayashi and other experimental filmmakers in Tokyo gradually increased their profile, trading notes with other rising artists, sculptors, and musicians like Genpei Akasegawa and Yoko Ono. While initially ignored by the feature film world, art magazines began to dub them the "new film art" as the group screened their works in various makeshift venues around the city. This culminated in a two-hour program at the Kinokuniya Hall in Shinjuku, where each participating filmmaker and musician was given a 60-second slot. In the audience was a producer from Japan's largest advertising firm, Dentsu. After the show he approached the filmmakers with a proposal: why not take the experimental techniques of these short-format films and be paid to create similar advertisements of the same length? Obayashi recalls being drawn by the more professional equipment available at the Toho studios, where the commercials were filmed - particularly the much richer spectrum of colors he could capture using their film stock. As Obayashi describes it, in exchange for access to this enhanced visual palate, the "theme" of his films would thereafter be the products up for sale. Obayashi ultimately decided this was a worthwhile tradeoff. In the end, he was the only one of the group to take the adman up on his offer. [ 2 ]

Just as the Dentsu producer had envisioned, Obayashi went on to become a stylistic innovator in the advertising field. Experimentation with cinematic time and space became in Obayashi's ad work a means to provide viewers both spectacle and surprise, with dull moments sped over if not excised completely. This uptempo aesthetic - already central to the early films - became key to Obayashi's transformation into a successful director of television commercials in the 1960s. In the following two decades Obayashi created over 2000 commercials, including Charles Bronson applying Mandom deodorant, Sophia Loren pitching the Honda Roadable, Catherine Deneuve applying Lux makeup, and Ringo Starr donning outfits by Renown. Obayashi paired this star power with his catalogue of fast-cutting techniques, playing a catalytic role in the development of the Japanese commercial's hyper pace and the industry's high premium on aesthetic novelty - not to mention its fascination with foreign movie stars.

In the late 1970s, after a string of hit commercials, producers from Toho urged him to try his hand at a feature. As Obayashi recalls, his producer told him that the studio was tired of losing money on completely comprehensible films, and was ready to let Obayashi produce his own completely incomprehensible script. [ 3 ] The result was House. While continuing to direct commercials on the side, Obayashi went on in the following decade to become an influential director of youth films, and to date has directed no less than forty features, including a wide range of literary adaptations of popular Japanese novels.

In what follows, I explore some of Obayashi's stylistic contributions to Japanese moving image culture, as well as what themes have remained constant in his transformation from small-gauge experimentation to corporate-funded commercial filmmaking. Obayashi's career helps illuminate how mainstream media digested the aesthetic innovations of the 1960s. The films demonstrate both the transformations and the surprising continuities of Obayashi's journey from the center of the Tokyo underground to the height of mainstream media in the bubble era.

picture: films by Nobuhiko Obayashi

The Early Experiments [ 4 ]

In the early 8 and 16 millimeter films Obayashi often extends stop-motion animation techniques to live-action footage, opening up the time axis of the film to all kinds of direct manipulation in the editing room. One of Obayashi's most recognizable stop-motion motifs is to have an actor 'slide' down a road while standing perfectly still, an illusion created through a succession of still images of the actor at rest, each time a few centimeters further down the path. Obayashi also develops playful strategies of extremely fast cutting, speeding up and slowing down footage, and a whole range of jump-cuts (many obliquely referencing Jean-Luc Godard's work [ 5 ]). This all combines with what is already a hyper-active narrative, where scenes tumble ahead of the plot. Viewers must hurry to catch up. Or, perhaps more likely faced with this playfully random style, they might give up on comprehension and simply enjoy the ride.

Aside from these editing techniques, Obayashi's early work was also innovative in its mixture of a wide range of media within a single film. Many works intercut hand-drawn and collage animation with live-action footage, a technique Obayashi would expand to include extensive matte work in his later features (compositing several images within a single frame). This emphasis on extensively mixing various media within a single film established an early precedent for contemporary trends in Japanese motion graphics and hybrid media. [ 6 ]

Beyond formal experimentation, what makes Obayashi's early work distinct from other filmmakers to come out of the 1960s is the way he pairs an emphasis on malleable time and space with an equally fervent impulse towards melodrama of the most robust and romantic sort. This interest in romanticism is evident in the preponderance of 19th-century European classical music - Liszt, Brahms, and others - in the soundtracks to Obayashi's films. Obayashi, himself a pianist, often deploys a sentimental piano melody as a film's emotional core. Actual pianos, likewise, are scattered throughout his films, as with the famous girl-eating piano in House. (This piano is admittedly not that romantic, though even here the melody takes on a sentimental strain.) With these melodramatic leanings, Obayashi was already well situated to crossover to the mainstream, certainly compared to the often more purposefully noisy and discomforting styles of his colleagues in experimental film.

This unique combination of formal experimentation and melodramatic romanticism is evident from the very early films onward, including Obayashi's first formal 8mm work, The Girl in the Picture (E no naka no Kanojo, 1960). In this short film, a painter loses his lover at the same time as her image disappears from the center of the drawing he carries with him. While wandering forlorn in a deserted forest, he encounters a girl who looks just like the woman he once loved. The encounter becomes at once a physical reunion and an attempt to reconstitute his work of art. A series of unmarked flashbacks allow the film to slide between several pasts and an unstable present. Intertitles are carved directly onto the frame as the characters speak, further blurring the boundaries between the hand-drawn world of the picture and the photographed world of the two young lovers in the forest.

Monuments to Youth

This film also introduces another abiding Obayashi theme to run the length of his career: the exuberant love affairs of active, good-looking youth. In his introductions to the early films included on the recent DVD collection, Obayashi repeatedly emphases that these 8mm and 16mm films are his "youth films" [seishun eiga], culminating in Émotion (1966), his "monument to youth."

One of Obayashi's last works in 16mm, Émotion is billed as an homage to Roger Vadim's Blood and Roses (1960). It shares much of the same plot: jealousy between two girls over a lover leads one of them to get involved with a vampire, who may or may not be a figment of her imagination. Vadim's film was in turn based on at 1872 novel by Joseph Sheridan LeFanu, Carmilla. Obayashi himself plays the dashing blood-sucker in his version, drinking his victim's blood with a straw. Alongside the tale of jealous rage, he makes time for dancing around the camera and experimenting with John Wayne-style shoot-outs. While ostensibly based around the vampire narrative, one of the several voiceovers (including Donald Richie's highly selective English translation) marks the film as also a "record of our youth." Already by the late 1960s, "youth" in Obayashi's films begins to take on a retrospective sheen. Youth is looked back on as a time of energy, freedom, and, as this title implies, uninhibited emotion. And it is always a cinematic time made more beautiful in camera, through soft-focus and various color filters.

picture: films by Nobuhiko Obayashi

In the 8mm films of the early 1960s, Obayashi was close in age to his actors. But already by the late 1960s a nostalgic sentiment seeps in towards a youth already felt to be slipping away. In many other experimental Japanese films of the time, youthfulness is intertwined with complex investments in the struggling student movement and thwarted hopes for a world to come. But in Obayashi's more circumscribed world, adulthood is registered most strongly in the emergence of the family. Obayashi was now married (to the girl in Girl in the Picture, Kyoko, who later became his producer), and by the late 1960s had a child. The three of them begin to appear as a unit in the last of the 16-millimeter works, signaling the end of youth and the rise of responsibility.

While his new family may mark the loss of youth for Obayashi as a character, his feature films continued to focus on a population perpetually just about to come of age. Many of the features center on middle school and high school students. As with Obayashi's romantic leanings, this youthful focus paired well with the youth-driven consumer economy of the late 1970s and 80s. Obayashi's camera is always ready to linger on stylish young women and handsome young men, as they pose and frolic in a way that merges cultural iconoclasm with pop-cultural exuberance. The styles of Obayashi's beautiful youth chart a direct line from the Nouvelle Vague starlet to the pop idols of the 1980s, reminding us that fashion photography was never necessarily at odds with the avant-garde. Godard, after all, tried to cast Anna Karina in Breathless (A bout de souffle, 1960) after seeing her covered in soapsuds in a series of ads for Palmolive.

Supernatural Schoolchildren

Beginning with House, Obayashi focused on expanding this potent and poppy stylishness into feature-length narratives. House features an ensemble cast of seven commercial-ready young girls, with the central girl nicknamed Oshare [fashionable]. The film is a veritable catalogue of Obayashi's earlier experimental camera tricks, mixed with enough stylish, brightly-colored bounce to constantly recall Obayashi's earlier work in advertising. Obayashi's move from the world of television commercials straight to directing a feature for Toho, bypassing the usual time spent as assistant director, set an important precedent for later directors emerging from these fields, including Yoshimitsu Morita and Jun Ichikawa.

While his later films tone down the frothy trickery of House, Obayashi's repertoire of jump-cuts and graphic compositing remain central to his later features' visual spectacle and narrative surprise. The following year Obayashi directed a star vehicle for the popular screen couple Momoe Yamaguchi and Tomokazu Miura, a San Francisco-set piece entitled If She Looks Back, It's Love (Furimukeba, Ai, 1978). While playing it fairly straight here, Obayashi does have rain fall even indoors to match the character's lovelorn weepiness. This was followed by a series of films in the early eighties with grade school settings, beginning with School in the Crosshairs (Nerawareta Gakuen, 1981), and followed by Transfer Student (Tenkosei, 1982) and The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (Toki o Kakeru Shojo, 1983). Obayashi's school-age films played a central role in the surging popularity of the student film (seishun eiga) genre at this time. School in the Crosshairs shares a number of social themes with Yoshimitsu Morita's more internationally known Family Game (Kazoku Gemu, 1983) - both satirize the home tutor (katei kyoshi) and the pressure on children to perform academically. But compared with Morita's film, Obayashi's take on the issues is more otherworldly. An order-obsessed space alien descends upon the school thinly disguised as a transfer student, and immediately establishes a ruthless disciplinary brigade that the school administration is only too happy to accept. The alien's plans are ultimately thwarted by a girl who learns she can telepathically manipulate the outcome of events happening around her.

Students with paranormal powers reappear in the later two films, leading to an exchange of sexes and the ability to 'jump' through time, respectively. The powers of these supernatural schoolchildren serve as a way to showcase Obayashi's signature stop-motion camera techniques. Telepathy and time-leaping become narrative ciphers for Obayashi's own manipulations of time and space.

Notably, however, Obayashi's characters always reject these supernatural abilities by the end of the film, in favor of returning to a more "normal" [nichijo, futsu] existence. This coincides with a coming-of-age moment in the characters' personal lives, so that giving up the ability to play with time and space becomes equated with growing up, moving from youth into responsible adulthood.

picture: films by Nobuhiko Obayashi

This is the subtext of The Girl Who Leapt Through Time. [ 7 ] As the film opens, ordinary middle-class high school girl Kazuko Yoshiyama is accidentally exposed to a strange lavender-scented steam in her school science lab. She discovers soon after she now possesses the ability to teleport (terepoto) and time-leap (taimu-riipu). These powers manifest cinematically in the film as jump-cuts, as Kazuko makes herself and other objects disappear in one space only to reappear in another. While Kazuko's first response to the lavender potion is to faint (the school doctor declares her "anemic"), she eventually learns to master this new temporal relativity. She is aided by a boy from the future, Fukamachi. "You're just nervous," he says while teaching her how to time-jump. "Relax." Fukamachi later tells Kazuko of a future where everyone has such time-jumping powers. The boy eventually must return to this future, despite longing for the simplicity of the high schooler's temporally simple life. He warns the girl not to follow in his path, telling her "don't be a vagabond of time." He convinces Kazuko to erase her memory and return to being the "normal" girl she used to be, giving up the boy from the future as her love interest and returning to his more down-to-earth rival, Goro, the son of a soy-sauce maker.

The film dramatizes the mastery of Obayashi's cinematic temporality - here literally the ability to 'leap' through time - while ultimately returning the girl back safely to a domestic space and a predictably linear life course. The director, meanwhile, emphasizes his own mastery of cinematic structure throughout the film. The opening sequence, for example, 'leaps' between different film formats, moving between black and white and color, and then from a 4:3 to widescreen aspect ratio. In the final credit sequence, Kazuko sings a song while walking through a compilation of her key scenes in the film - in reverse order.

As with much of Obayashi's work, the complexity of this visual spectacle is paradoxically woven through with nostalgia for the simple straightforwardness of youth. Fukamachi appears to be speaking for Obayashi when he warns Kazuko of a future where everyone becomes a "vagabond," refusing to stay put in one place and time. He might well be hinting at Obayashi's career in advertising when he says that where he comes from, people know how to exercise "mind control" by "borrowing" the memories of others.

In this way Obayashi spectacularly demonstrates his own mastery of discontinuous cinematic time and space, while simultaneously providing a warning, here via Fukamachi, against getting too wrapped up in such play, becoming a "vagabond" like himself. Experimentation in youth (and cinema) is fun, the films seem to say, but this freedom must be abandoned as part of the transition to adulthood.


Obayashi gives this space of youthful play a precise location in many of his works: his hometown of Onomichi. The city, perched on a Hiroshima mountainside overlooking the Inland Sea, reappears continually throughout Obayashi's career. In a 1963 film named after the city, Obayashi compiled a range of early Onomichi footage he had been shooting since the age of eight, when his doctor father first gave him an 8mm camera to play with. The 1963 film mixes this material from his childhood in the 1950s with images from the early 1960s of his future wife Kyoko. In his introduction on the DVD collection Obayashi describes this film as a glimpse of his "source landscape" (gentei no fukei). He would return again to Onomichi's narrow stairs and and cliffside temples for his last major 16-millimeter work, Confession (1968).

Over a decade later, Obayashi used these same staircases and temples as the setting for a number of his features, beginning with Transfer Student (1982). Transfer Student opens with some of Obayashi's boyhood 8mm footage, before the frame expands to reveal a middle-school boy projecting the films in a room with his father. The youth, Kazuo, is portrayed as an aspiring filmmaker. During the gender-swapping misadventures that later ensue, the real "Kazuo" is signaled by which character (the boy or girl) is wearing a Twentieth Century-Fox baseball cap. When Kazuo himself is forced to transfer schools at the end of the film (again, abandoning the supernatural and advancing to a more mature world), he takes out his camera to film the girl and the city he is leaving behind.

picture: films by Nobuhiko Obayashi

As in this ending sequence, Obayashi often portrays Onomichi as a site of magical youth, albeit one that must be relinquished with the onset of adulthood. Echoing Obayashi's own move to Tokyo at the start of his career, his films portray Onomichi as a place to return to occasionally and reconnect with the innocent adventures of childhood, but not a place to stay or have a career. This implicit connection between Onomichi as a nostalgic cinematic fantasy and Onomichi as a tourist destination becomes explicit in a travel show Obayashi hosted for Japan Airlines later in the decade (included on the Japanese DVD of Transfer Student) where the director urges viewers to visit Onomichi to experience for themselves the "magical" cinematic landscapes of his young protagonists.

Today Obayashi continues to direct both commercials and features, as well as make regular appearances as a commentator on Japanese television. His career serves as a remarkably clear demonstration of how experimental film techniques found their way into the mainstream media. Obayashi reconfigured many of his 1960s experiments with cinematic time and space to provide the catchy novelties of his 70s television commercials and 80s features, greatly influencing the trajectory of Japanese marketing and commercial filmmaking to follow. The apparent ease with which Obayashi translated his style between the seemingly antagonistic realms of experimental and commercial productions illuminates an often overlooked historical coherence between the avant-garde 1960s and the consumerism of the 1980s. Obayashi's deal with the Dentsu adman - to abandon meaningful themes in order to be free to develop his own formal experiments - proved to be a fateful one for Japanese visual culture. Obayashi helped set the stage for the many younger image makers in Japan who followed in his footsteps, further blurring the boundaries between artistic innovation and product promotion. He provides an example of experimental filmmaking that is appealingly playful and at times wildly creative, but also one that is highly circumscribed, narrowing experimental film to the realm of childish entertainments.

Thanks to Alan Tansman and Jason Sanders for the opportunity to screen some obscure Obayashi reels at the Pacific Film Archive while researching this article.

Paul Roquet is a Ph.D. Candidate in Japanese Literature and Film Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. His writing has appeared recently in the Journal of Japanese Studies and Octopus, a Visual Studies Journal.


  • [ 1 ] Obayashi Nobuhiko, "CM seisaku ni okeru ningengaku" [Studying Humanity by making Commercials]. Talk delivered at the International Research Center for Japanese Studies, March 18th, 2006. Reprinted in Yamada Shoji, ed. Bunka toshite no terebi komasharu [Cultural Perspectives on Television Commercials], Tokyo: Seikaishisosha, 2007: 283.
  • [ 2 ] Ibid, 285.
  • [ 3 ] Ibid, 286.
  • [ 4 ] A collection of these early works was recently released in Japan as a two-volume DVD set: Obayashi Nobuhiko Seishun Kaiko-roku [Nobuhiko Obayashi Youth Recollection Record]. Distributed by Vap Video (no English subtitles).
  • [ 5 ] In the introduction to Thursday (Mokuyobi, 8mm, 1961), Obayashi recalls his group's liberating encounter with Jean Luc-Godard's work. He recalls how an ambition grew among them to develop a local '8mm Nouvelle Vague' in response. Thursday immediately registers a strong flavor of Breathless. The playful intensity of two young lovers in the forest floods over into playful jump-cuts and handheld camera frolicking. The subjective camera is so present in the film that even though only two characters appear on screen, the romance registers as a love triangle. Another, more direct Godardian reference here is to one of Godard's classic cinematic jokes: cutting between two close-ups of a girl shot from positions only a few inches apart, then cutting to a counter-shot showing a boy watching the girl first with one eye closed, then the other.
  • [ 6 ] Obayashi's early compositing of diverse media in Japan is comparable to the early American motion graphics innovators Lev Manovich describes in his recent book, Software Takes Command (2008). Available at See 129-30.
  • [ 7 ] The film is based on a serialized novel by Yasutaka Tsutsui, as was Mamoru Hosoda's 2006 animated version.