“Hanagatami” and my memories of Obayashi Nobuhiko
I got a call from a producer asking me if I still want to do photography work for Obayashi Nobuhiko movie “Hanagatami.” I was trying to get on a set of this movie for some time. It was already a week since the film started shooting.
I said yes, but with one condition- I want to document it freely. I already knew that Obayashi had cancer, so I was eager to document what could be the last movie of the last genuinely independent director in Japan. The producer gave me the green light, and immediately, I was on a train to Karatsu, where the primary shooting of the film was taking place…
I want to share with you some of my stills and memories from that time. I am in no way a professional writer, so forgive me if it’s all over the place. I just want to process the passing of a person who had a significant impact on my creative life and, once again, reaffirm the values I learn from him through writing this article.
The doctor told Obayashi, who was diagnosed with cancer that he had 3 months to live right about the first day of the shoot started. He was spending most of his time in hospital and appeared on the set during the day-time, after dawn he was back in hospital again; hence the crew called him “Cinderella Boy”. The crew knew the situation but it was scarcely discussed in open.
When I arrived at the location — the director has not arrived yet. Though it was sunny, it felt like there was a dark cloud hovering over the whole crew. Everybody was very tense. I was afraid to come closer and introduce myself.
Obayashi wrote the original script 20 years ago, it was originally planned as his debut picture, but “House” came first, changing the scenery of the whole Japanese movie industry… he came back to it 40 years later.
Hanagatami was a dark story about youth during the beginning of the second world war filled with elements of fantasy, horror, romance and comedy. Also it is very erotic. It is an Obayashi movie in all sense — a gem of amateur craziness that have to be repolished in your memories. I have complicated somewhat bitter-sweet feelings about it…
Conversations on set were mostly about the future of Japan, the youth of past and present.
I could feel he was rushing, knowing that there is no guarantee that he can overlook all the shooting. Yet he never hesitated to spend time to educate young crew members, his words were always full of philosophical yet practical wisdom.
I remember at point he started to discuss with me his recently released documentary behind-the-scenes of Kurosawa`s Dreams (btw way it is the only documentary where you can actually see how Kurosawa worked on set and how Kurosawa movie was made). He told me that Kurosawa passed him the baton which he now wants to give to us, young crew, in hopes that we will create a world with no wars in it.
He told me that the way how modern society changes and what decisions it makes may be good for economics, but he strongly felt that the “culture” were in danger and is in need of saving. He added that the only regret in life that he had was that he could not fulfill the promise he made to Kurosawa to create a world without war.
There are two episodes that I will probably will never forget.
Once, he sat in the hotel lobby where the crew was staying and started to play the beautiful melody — that end up being a main theme for the movie. I knew he was multi-talented (he wrote an endless amount of books on American and Japanese cinema, on life and work ethics). Still, I did not realize that he was also a composer. It felt magical… slowly all the crew came out of their rooms and listened to him playing for a while.
Since that day, Obayashi was getting better and better as if the gods of cinema gave him the power to overcome the illness. It felt like some kind of a miracle is happening on the set.
Another time: the crew had to move from one location to a beach that was just 10 minutes walk. Obayashi was nobody to be found, and I realized that he went ahead towards sea. I ran to catch up with him and saw his back moving towards the vast sea… usually, he walked very slowly, but at that moment, he was almost running.
There was something about it. It felt like he fearlessly went ahead towards the unknown, that he accepted his fate and was showing us the way…
This scene will be forever etched in my mind…
Obayashi Nobuhiko end up shooting one more movie after that. He managed to finish it, but passed on 10th of april before the premier of it. I am pretty sure he is shooting movie somewhere in another dimension…
For those who unfamiliar with Obayashi who inspired such great directors like Tarantino, Scorsese and many more (he was in good friends with Lucas also)- I strongly suggest you check his earlier works like:
“House.” “The Girl Who Leapt Through Time.” “School in the Crosshairs”. “Lonely Heart” is one of my favorites.