The good stuff
Oddball romance, set right before the start of WWII. What may look like a pretty basic romantic drama on paper is elevated to something completely unique and quirky by director Ôbayashi. It reminded me a little of Suzuki's Pistol Opera, a film not of this era, but so special that it doesn't really matter. It's a shame the film is so long though.
Another great Ôbayashi comedy. It's really unfortunate to see how such a rich and varied oeuvre remained under the radar for so long, especially when Ôbayashi did make several cult films that made the rounds. It's never too late to discover great films though, so I'm glad he's received some renewed attention these past couple of years.
Bound for the Fields is set in pre-WWII Japan. The country is starting to ready itself for the coming war, but the children in a small rural town don't understand what all the fuss is about. Two young bullies are forced to work together when the sister of one of them is about to be sold to a brothel.
Ôbayashi does what he does best. A light rural drama is mixes with quirky comedy and light fantasy elements. It's a fun, lively film that never bores despite it's rather long runtime. The lush black and white cinematography certainly plays a part in that (beware, there's also a color version), but it's really Ôbayashi's splendid direction that ties everything together. Very nice.
A very sweet and agreeable Ôbayashi. His 80s work is generally a lot more toned down than what he's famous for, usually sprinkling drama with light fantasy elements. Quality varies, but Lonelyheart is one of the better films in this niche, a cute mix of coming-of-age with some supernatural elements.
Hiroki has a crush on a girl he doesn't really dare to approach. He sees her practicing the piano every day and pines for her love. But then another girl shows up. She's wearing weird make-up and seems to know Hiroki and his family very well. At first only Hiroki can see her, but then people around him start noticing her too.
Lonelyheart is a very warm and nostalgic film. The small-town rural community, the yellowish haze draped over the film and lots of minor details that make you reminisce about simpler times. Performances are good too and though a bit long, the film never starts to drag. I liked this one a lot.
The more Obayashi films I see, the more I realize there are two very distinct sides to the man. He's mostly famous for his zany, weird and over-the-top films, but throughout he's oeuvre he also directed plenty of subdued, more commercially-oriented movies. This is one of those, with just a little Obayashi magic on top to make it stand out.
Yoshiyama is on cleanup duty. When she's done cleaning the lab a canister falls and the fumes that get released make her faint. The next day an earthquake hits the town she lives in. But then something weird happens to her, and she travels back a day in time. Knowing what is about to happen, so tries to warn the people she loves.
The Little Girl Who Conquered Time is a very gentle, sweet and loveable little film. The sci-fi elements are minimalistic, the drama is light, performances are good and there's a little pre-finale sequence that gives the film that bit of extra flair it needed. Obayashi was a talented man, I'm happy I still have quite a ways to go.
One of Obayashi's early shorts. The recently deceased madcap director clearly didn't miss his start. Emotion is quite experimental, but also just plain weird, a mix not uncommon in Obayashi's films. Where his feature films have narratives that are somewhat easier to follow though, Emotion is bonkers from start to finish.
Parts of the film are shot in color, others are monochrome. The editing is frantic, with jump cuts, repetitions, stop-motion and fast intertitles, happily referencing the era of silent film. There's lots of voice-over narration too though, some in English, some in Japanese. The film feels like a baffling fever dream, something I can definitely appreciate.
At just under 40 minutes, it's also not too long. The plot is really rather vague and the execution is quite crude, so 90 minutes of this would've been a bit much. At its current length though, Emotion is a fun, quirky, creative and appealing film that is sure to please those seeking out something different. A must for fans of Obayashi's work, a good starting point for all the rest.
A more than respectable and appropriate swan song for Ôbayashi. A film about cinema, a film that feels like vintage Ôbayashi and ultimately may even be about Ôbayashi himself, though that's a tougher call to make for someone who has only seen about 20% of his entire oeuvre so far.
The story is all over the place, but that was to be expected. The gist of it is that a group of young people travels back into time while visiting a movie theater. They travel along some of the biggest battlefields in Japanese history, (of course) ending up at Hiroshima. Meanwhile, Ôbayashi gives a couple lessons in film history.
Labyrinth of Cinema is way too long and not really of this time, but because this is Ôbayashi's final film and because his style is so iconic, it's exactly the kind of goodbye that befits his legacy. A mad but genius director who will be sorely missed, leaving the world of cinema the way he came in: with an uncompromising bang.
Ôbayashi will forever be known for his weird and madcap fantasy/horror cinema, but during the 90s he made a fair few films that are a lot more toned down. There are clear fantasy elements present in Goodbye for Tomorrow, but they're there to support the drama rather than the other way around.
A boat accident casts a dark shadow over a small coastal village. Three months after the accident, friends and families of the deceased get a strange note, asking them to come to a remote island. There they will get one last chance to meet up with the people they lost that fateful day.
Even without all the weirdness lighting up his films, Ôbayashi is still a pretty solid director. The first hour in particular is very moody, offering a nice mix of mystery, fantasy and drama. Once everyone is reunited the drama becomes a bit long-winded and heavy-handed, but solid performances, decent cinematography and a solid ending make this a worthwhile film.
Delve a bit deeper into Ôbayashi's oeuvre and you'll soon find out that he made quite a few films aimed at younger audiences. Samurai Kids is such a film, though luckily it retains Ôbayashi's distinctive style, so if you're a fan of his weirder output you shouldn't worry too much about this being a complete dud.
The film follows Satoru, a young kid who finds a miniature samurai along the river banks. The samurai isn't doing too well after being exposed to the polluted river water. Satoru decides to take care of him, but a pesky raven is tailing the samurai and keeping him hidden from his parents also proves to be quite a challenge.
Don't expect technical excellence, instead Ôbayashi aims for charm, with some fun stop motion scenes, plenty of odd camera angles and hyperactive camera work. It's a bit weird to see this in a children's film, but it does a good job of setting it apart from its peers. A fun an amusing diversion, though not his best work.
Another fine fantasy/drama from Nobuhiko Ôbayashi. It seems that during the late 80s/early 90s Ôbayashi made a couple of films geared at a younger audience. Luckily he never seemed to have lost his unique touch. Though Chizuko's Younger Sister feels like a kid's film, there's still plenty of trademark Ôbayashi here.
The story revolves around Mika, the younger sister of the deceased Chizuko. Mika has always lived in the shadow of her older sis and had a hard time growing up. Until one day, when her sister comes back from the dead to rescue her from a perv. From then on she keeps seeing Chizuko whenever she's struggling.
There's a little visual weirdness that is definitely appreciated and the film fares best when Ôbayashi keeps it light and breezy. It gets a bit too dramatic near the end and a little editing to get it closer to the 120-minute mark would've done the film some good, but overall this was a pretty warm, quirky and agreeable film.
Another decent Ôbayashi. It seems that during the 80s and 90s he made a series of films that were somewhat easier to digest, though in the final half hour of Beijing Watermelon Ôbayashi's quirky side resurfaces. Don't expect anything too crazy, but the fourth wall is breached more than once.
Haruzo and Michi have a small vegetable job. Their lives change drastically when they meet Li, a Chinese student who doesn't have the money to buy himself a proper meal. At first Haruzo isn't very willing to help Li, but when he sees the harsh life he leads Haruzo decides to give him a hand after all.
The first 90 minutes reminded me a little of films like Tampopo. Beijing Watermelon shows a lively working class community comprised of grumpy characters that end up having a heart of gold and serves it with somewhat moderate stylistic choices. Then Ôbayashi takes a sudden turn and film and reality start to interweave (as the story is based on real life events). It's a bit long maybe, but the interesting finale makes it worth the while.
Obayashi goes full in on this youthful romance. After a short introduction in the city, he moves his film to the countryside and serves up a very idyllic, sweet and explosive romance. Fans of Hausu may be surprised, but dig deeper into the man's oeuvre and you'll find he made plenty of softer youth dramas.
A biker kid is threatened by his girlfriend's brother and decides to take a little road trip. He takes his favored bike and leaves everything behind. Not long after he runs into a mysterious young girl. When she invites him to her island, he decides to take a change and accepts her invitation.
I'm not entirely sure if the alternations between color and sepia made much sense here, but at least the cinematography was pretty impressive. Performances are fine, the energy of the film is great and there are a few memorable moments, the soundtracks pretty cheesy though and the film does have some pacing issues. But if you love Obayashi's work, it's definitely worth checking out.
A sweet, little film that made me think of Koreeda's lighter dramas more than once, except that Ôbayashi's style is a lot more outgoing. Four Sisters may not be very slice-of-life or going for overt realism, the atmosphere is very cozy and though the drama can get a little heavy-handed, the film itself never drowns in sentiment.
Four sisters are on the verge of adulthood. They have a pretty nice life, but some pubescent love troubles uncover a pretty big secret. It turns out three of the four sisters were adopted at a young age. While this news hits home, it's just one of the elements that pushes their lives in different directions.
Performances are solid, the cinematography is pleasant (with some truly standout shots here and there) and the score is appropriate. Not everything works equally well (the romances feel a bit obligatory) and it's nothing you haven't seen before, but if you're looking for a fine Japanese drama with minor Ôbayashi touches, this one won't disappoint.
I didn't expect too much from this Obayashi, TV films are rarely a showcase for a director's talents, but I'm quite impressed with the result. Cute Devil's TV roots are noticeable, at the same time this is unmistakably an Obayashi film. Bold, expressive and overwhelmingly cheesy, but also very effective.
Most "demon child" films opt for boys, Obayashi takes a cute, little Japanese girl and has her murder all who get in her way. It's a neat twist that pays off surprisingly well. It's almost impossible to guide child actors into becoming mean, evil beings (which is where most of these films fail), it's much easier to have them be charming little nuggets that do some killing on the side.
While not as outright crazy as House, Obayashi makes excellent use of the soundtrack and cinematography to create a vibrant yet disturbing atmosphere. The film could definitely benefit from a thorough restoration, but for a made-for-TV production this looked very solid. A fun and amusing horror film, which was more than I expected to find.
Think Shinkai's Your Name, only without the more fantastical bits. A sweet coming of age story about two kids who switch bodies. It's a typical Ôbayashi film, set in a small, charming port town, featuring the usual kids banter and coming of age drama, without overcomplicating things too much.
Kazumi is a transfer student who recognizes Kazuo right away. The two grew up when they were younger. Kazumi wants to pick up their friendship, Kazuo seems a bit more reluctant. After an unfortunate scuffle, they both roll down some temple stairs. When they wake up, they've switched bodies.
The two lead actors do a great job, the light tone of the drama is pleasant, and the setting is very idyllic. Ôbayashi's visual playfulness is kept to a minimum, though there are a few moments where he couldn't help himself. Not a very remarkable or memorable film, but a sweet and enjoyable bit of filler that works well within his oeuvre.
Another Ôbayashi that mixes fantasy with coming of age drama. He made quite a few of these films and while none are true masterpieces, they are sure to entertain. The finale in particular is vintage Ôbayashi madness, it's just a shame that the rest of it isn't all that special.
Yuka is a high school student with mysterious powers. While she is trying to figure out the reason behind these powers, a transfer student joins her class and displays similar powers. It's clear from the start that she's willing to use her powers against Yuka, who will need to fight her off if she wants to protect her friends and family.
Performances are decent, and the fantasy elements are interesting enough. It takes a while before the film gets up to steam though, and it isn't until the finale that Ôbayashi goes full out. The visual effects may not be very advanced, but they're very charming. Not Ôbayashi's best, but an entertaining little diversion nonetheless.
Kosuke Kindaichi is one of the most famous detectives in Japan, made popular by the films of Kon Ichikawa (but originating from a long line of novels). Madcap director Nobuhiko Ôbayashi also had a swing at it and delivers what could've been a fun live action Lupin film, only with a different set of characters.
The plot is pretty negligible and little more than an excuse for some insanity along the way. Kindaichi is summoned to recapture the missing head of statue. What starts off as a very simple assignment, quickly escalates into a mad search for the head. Again, the comparisons with Lupin are never far off.
I'm not familiar with the original series so it's difficult to compare, but the elements that stick out bear the clear signature of Ôbayashi. The tone is extremely light, even bordering on outright comedy, there are some truly wacky moments and the hand of Ôbayashi is always present. Probably more fun for people already familiar with the series, but still worth a watch even if you've never heard of Kindaichi before.
Worthy but flawed
One of Ôbayashi's later undertakings in his career. Seven Weeks is a very ambitious film (clocking in at nearly 3 hours, better make sure you're ready for it), but the mix of serious drama and Ôbayashi's kooky fakeness didn't really work for me this time around. There are some inspired moments here, but as a whole it didn't quite work.
Set in the town of Ashibetsu, the film revolves around the funeral of Suzuki. His family gathers there and stories from the past are dug up, as they generally are during funerals. It gives Ôbayashi the chance to deal with some deeper themes, like death, love and Japan's tragic war history.
There are some pretty shots here, sadly the characters stick out like sore thumbs, often completely breaking the illusion. Ôbayashi has some neat directorial tricks up his sleeve, but they break up the drama and take away from the more serious moments. It doesn't often happen, but it seems I prefer Ôbayashi's older work.
One of Ôbayashi's lesser films, coincidentally also one of his longer films. The film is a rather predictable drama that wallows in nostalgia (hence the title), but brings very little of Ôbayashi's trademark elements to set itself apart from its peers. The result was a bit too long and indistinct for me.
Ayase is a popular writer who produces "ice-cream" novels (sweet and simple stories that melt away into nothing). He decides to return to his old town. Once there he runs into the ghosts of his past (most notably a young girl who he once loved), which forces him to reflect on his life and the choices he made.
The setting is nice, the performances are decent. There are one or two more typical Ôbayashi moments, but for the most part it's a relatively basic drama that deals with predictable topics to which Ôbayashi can't all that much. It's not a terrible film, but I definitely prefer Ôbayashi's more unique films.
Rock. It seems to be cinema's ultimate (yet lazy) go-to source for a bit of rebellion, even though it's now very much a last century thing (the rebellious part that is). I don't have any affinity with the genre, so these films tend to be wasted on me, even when it's a director like Ôbayashi handling the film.
The Rocking Horsemen is a very basic coming of age drama, with a young high school student (Takeyoshi) being introduced to rock music for the first time. He's immediately sold and ditches his love for classical music. He takes on a job during the holidays and wants to start a band with some guys from school.
It was fun to see a very young Tadanobu Asano in one of his first big roles and the drama isn't that bad. There are small glimpses of Ôbayashi's wilder side too, but they are few and far between. It's just all very basic and with no enthusiasm for the music on display it does come off as one of Ôbayashi's weaker films.
A surprisingly straightforward drama from Ôbayashi, set in Yanagawa (Japan's famous canal city - its demise was also captured in a documentary by Isao Takahata a few years later). While Ôbayashi tries to add some mystery and intrigue, it doesn't really stick and the result is a bit too cheesy for its own good.
Eguchi thinks back of the time he spent writing his thesis in Yanagawa. At the time he lived in with the Kaibara household. When he hears the sound of tears at night, he goes out to investigate and becomes part of the drama that tears the family apart. The rest of the city is in pretty bad shape too.
Performances are decent, but the intrigue simply doesn't work. Ôbayashi's style isn't very suited for serious films and when he tries to get poetic it just comes off silly. There are moments where his talent shines through and its certainly not a terrible film, just not on the same level as his other work.
Not really the kind of film I'd expected from Obayashi. The Island Closest to Heaven is a rather chirpy and upbeat drama, a film that sometimes feels like a travel documentary/advertisement. Most of the film is set in New Caledonia, a group of French islands to the east of Australia which prove to be quite photogenic.
Keiko, a young woman, travels to the islands all by herself. It's the first big journey she undertakes on her own, as she's looking for a little white island that is supposedly the place where God descends if you want to talk to him. Keiko is part of a travel group, but she quickly separates from them and ventures off to explore on her own.
New Caledonia is a pretty pristine and idyllic place, Obayashi makes excellent use of the natural beauty to give his film some extra flair. The performances are rather weak though, the drama can get a little saccharine and Keiko's quest feels a little random. But most importantly, non of the Obayashi quirk that makes his film stand out. It's not bad, but it started to feel a little dated.