Just a few days ago, I had the supreme joy of attending a rare screening of one of my favorite films, Nobuhiko Obayashi’s 1977 psychedelic horror masterpiece, House. The film, if you are unfamiliar with it, simply defies explanation. It is a touching, horrifying, frenetic, atmospheric, and shockingly creative sensory experience that has no problem with pulling out all the stops. Above all, though, this film is fun – the type of magical, immersive fun that can only come from a deep labor of love by a child-at-heart. While it had been all too easy to imagine the whimsical personality of Nobuhiko Obayashi based solely on his filmmaking, the fine folks at Japan Society and PhilaMOCA brought Obayashi himself to share the in the filmgoing experience with his American fans, and offer insight into House and his methods.
As good an opportunity as ever to take this blog’s long-overdue first steps, I now present a transcription of the Q&A Obayashi gave after the show. It’s not a highly technical Q&A, but rather a poetic summation of Obayashi’s philosophy of filmmaking.
House Q&A with Nobuhiko Obayashi at PhilaMOCA, Philadelphia
11/19/2015, 4:30 Screening
(Edited transcript from dialogue via interpreter)
Q: Have you ever been approached about a remake of House?
Obayashi: I haven’t been asked about a remake, but I love remakes. At the beginning there will be a subtitle that says “End Movie”. It expresses my love for all the movies created before House. Movies are made of the most beautiful memories, so I’ll add all the beautiful memories to my own memories and make a movie. That’s why all my movies are remakes.
Marc Walkow (Presenter): I do know that Noboru Iguchi, director of Machine Girl and Dead Sushi and RoboGeisha, really wants to remake House – which would be amazing, but I think the rights are difficult with TOHO Studios and so on.
Q: Could you explain how the story of House was developed, and then how you successfully pitched such a film?
Obayashi: I used to be an independent filmmaker, working with 16mm and 8mm. I enjoyed watching major films, but never had dreamed of making one by myself. However, as the TV became popular the attraction to feature films declined. My independent films became very popular. The Toho film company – the most famous film studio in Japan – contacted me about an idea for a film, so Toho would provide all the money! If I was to make the film I wanted to make, there would be difficulty in gathering funds, but if I’m just making films that someone else wants me to make, then I wouldn’t have to worry about funding at all. That’s why this is the only film over which I didn’t have to worry about funding.
Marc Walkow: I asked him how many films he’s made so far, and he said, “Do I count all the commercials and shorts?” That would be thousands! How many? About 50. 50 films.
Obayashi: Even though Toho had wanted to make a feature-length film, I wasn’t so interested because back then people did not go to see Japanese films. However, as an independent film artist, my pieces had become very popular internationally. I was introduced as a “Film Artist” and not a “Movie Director”. So, when Toho contacted me to make a feature length film, I said yes because I enjoy watching those entertaining, feature length films. When I asked my daughter for an idea for the film, she said, “Don’t do it, because no one will watch it”. But then, she was combing her hair while gazing into a mirror, and she said, “It would be interesting if this image of mine would come out and devour me!” She was 11 then. Children are geniuses.
Right then, Stephen Spielberg had made Jaws, so there were a lot of ideas about bears attacking people, giant rats attacking people, such ideas for “creature features”. But this idea of an image which tries to eat the real person; there is a question of identity. Is it the image or the real character? It’s a philosophical theme. I thought that maybe I will make a gothic horror story, with a Dracula or Frankenstein type monster. I asked my daughter for more ideas, so she came up with all the 7 girls in this movie. I added the ideas about the woman who lost her lover in the war, so in that way she would need the girls who are the younger generations who grew up without knowing the war. The woman would teach them about the war – this was my idea from growing up in wartime.
Back then all major directors – like Kurosawa was employed by Toho, Ozu was employed by Shochiku, and Mizoguchi was employed by Daiei – because they were employed by these film companies, they were making the films which these companies excelled at most. Toho excels in making big social dramas, and Shochiku excels in making home drama/ slice of life. So what if Ozu makes Seven Samurai and Kurosawa makes Tokyo Story? That would never happen! It would then be even more impossible for a “film artist” to make a film with Toho. I did already have many fans of my films, who worked hard to make House a reality. That’s how I got the soundtrack. There were short novels, a manga, and even House themed fashion shows at department stores! There was also a dramatization on radio which became very popular. All of this happened before House had been made as a feature film, and all those successes of the novels, manga, and radio drama compelled Toho to make House. However, the directors employed by Toho could never make this silly movie! Then the president of Toho read the script and he thought he’d never read such a silly, nonsense script! However, if there was a great script that made sense to him, nobody would watch a film made from it, so he asked me to direct the film without changing anything.
Toho didn’t have anybody who could be a producer for this film. That’s how my wife established our company called P.S.C. (Producer System Company). So this is a family movie, made with my daughter and my wife. It was 40 years ago. My wife Kyoko has been producing all my films for 40 years! My wife Kyoko, my daughter Chigumi…
Chigumi: Thank You!
Marc Walkow: Chigumi is a filmmaker as well, and she has just screened A Dialogue: Living Harmony, a documentary on sustainable agriculture and organic food. It’s a very fun documentary – a very Obayashi-type documentary; people talking directly to the camera, people from 100 years ago talking to people 100 years from now. It’s called A Dialogue: Living Harmony – it screened in New York City last night.
Obayashi: After I made this film, people all over Japan thought, “This is not a film!” However, kids under 15 years old loved the film! I have thought that after 100 years everyone in the world will understand this film. I am very happy, though, that only 40 years later people like you in Philadelphia are loving this film. Thank you!
Q: House is a beautiful film, and my favorite film. One of the most beautiful things in House is the painted backdrops. I was wondering if you could speak about your use of backdrops in your film, and their style.
Obayashi: I know about American movie-making very well, and I know about the United States very well… through its movies. I know about Philadelphia very well. In 1939 a movie named The Philadelphia Story was made by George Cukor. I like the film – it won an Academy Award – though it was filmed in Hollywood, not Philadelphia. In the same year, 1939, Gone With The Wind was filmed, about a plantation in Georgia, but the backdrops were all hand painted in Hollywood as well. In the same year, The Wizard of Oz was filmed, and also featured hand-painted backdrops. So, in the film, the stagecoach would ride in a tiny space; the camera would have to move back and forth, back and forth, making a film. Moviemaking is about lying and faking! Although it’s not real, it has truth! In the same year, Union Pacific was also made. Later, the title roll of Union Pacific was copied by Star Wars.
So movies are all made of dreams and fantasy; while they are not real things, they convey a truth to us! This is why I chose to use hand-painted backdrops, almost childish backdrops; they express what is not real but convey the truth of what the girls experience in the house. On the silver screen the movie will project color and sound. The beautiful faces, the costumes, and the landscape will be projected onto the screen. But all these beautiful things are just “information”, not the movie. We get excited when we see those because we see the heart of the actors and the characters. However, the heart and emotions cannot be “seen” even with x-ray technology or the biggest screen! You cannot “see” hearts unless you close your eyes!
I met my interpreter just this afternoon. I think she is a fantastic person. However this is not enough for us to fall in love! Later, when I might close my eyes in the dark at night and fall asleep, I might think “Oh! Her heart is as beautiful as the sky over Philadelphia!” That is love. Because there is day and night – light and darkness – that is how love is born. In movies too, there is light and darkness. If you watch a 90 minute film, how long will there be pictures on the screen? You might believe that there would be 90 minutes worth, but in reality there are only about 50 minutes worth of images onscreen. The rest of the 40 minutes is darkness. You are watching Darkness.
In sign language, the word “Movie” is shown like this: alternating fingers of both hands over one another, like a shutter in front of your eyes. The sign for “T.V.” is shown like this: reaching out to switch on the channel, switch on information. But film, this is film. You see something, you don’t see something, you see something, you don’t see something. It is like this blinking when you watch a film.
When you’re on a train, and you look down at the rails, the rails look like this. All a blur. And then, if you blink, you can see a pebble. You blink, and you see a pebble in that moment. Film is like that too, because the film is blinking 24 times per second. That’s why you will see a continuous picture in film where it is actually like stop-motion. That’s why 40 minutes of a 90 minute film doesn’t have any pictures. It’s also why you have the right to ask for half of your admission back!
However, in the darkness, when you’re eyes are closed, you will fall in love. And so you really are paying for darkness! You said the film is beautiful, but that’s not because you thought only that the picture was beautiful on the screen, it’s because you fell in love with the image you saw in the darkness. So that’s how a movie is born out of magic. It is all fiction, with hand-drawn backdrops. You wouldn’t be as moved if the scenes were filmed in a real landscape.
(Transcription notes: The above was spoken by an interpreter in the 3rd person, and was edited here to be in the first person perspective of Obayashi himself. I don’t know the interpreter’s name and can certainly credit them if anyone sends it to me.)