Review: Seijo Story: 60 Years of Making Films (Japan Cuts 2020)

by Matthew Edward Hawkins

Yesterday I covered a mockumentary that featured a cameo by Nobuhiko Obayashi, so today’s review is for an actual documentary in which the man best known for Hausu… though his legacy comprises more than just one single work, as legitimately legendary as it may be… is the focal point. One of two, to be precise; as the saying goes, behind every great man is a great woman, but behind great director is a great producer as well. And Seijo Story: 60 Years of Making Films is about the husband & wife team of Nobuhiko & Kyoko.

We meet our subjects right after the cameras finished rolling on what would be Nobuhiko’s final film, the aforementioned Labyrinth of Cinema (the review of which will close my coverage of JAPAN CUTS 2020). The clock is then turned back a bit, before production began on the previous movie, Hanagatami; Nobuhiko revealed that he has cancer, with a diagnosis of only six to twelve months. Obviously, he was able to live long enough to make that film and one more; during Labyrinth of Cinema was when cancer treatment took place. The difference between Nobuhiko before and after is night and day, as is my memory of him, when I had the privilege of meeting him, when he visited NYC back in 2012. Yet Seijo Story goes back in time even further, all the way back to Nobuhiko’s childhood; as anyone familiar with his vast body of work knows already, World War II profoundly shaped his worldview (the price of admission is worth it alone to see the comics he drew as a 3rd grader, which blows away some of the stuff that professional comickers make today). Despite the assumption that young Nobuhiko would follow the family tradition of practicing medicine, his dad encouraged his son to follow his dream of making movies, which led him to Tokyo’s Seijo University, where he’d meet his partner and collaborator for life.

In many ways, the real star of the show is Kyoko Obayashi; she too had an interest in making movies, so the boyfriend & girlfriend/husband & wife not long after duo would end up producing artsy-fartsy stuff that ultimately led them to becoming the zeitgeist of the Japanese branch of the French New Wave film movement. Seijo Story traces Nobuhiko’s rise as a darling of the art scene, to successful director of TV CMs (cuz the Japanese movie industry had bottomed out, so making commercials was where the real money was at), and eventually his first major theatrical production (aka Hausu; here’s my review all the back in 2009 for anyone interested). Nobuhiko would make many more movies, but for each and every one, since day one, Kyoko was there as producer. She actually refused to be credited for the first five or so films (“I didn’t want to see Obayashi twice in the credits”) and it wasn’t until a colleague managed to change her mind for Are You, You Am Me (it still kills me how such an awesome flick is so inaccessible). Yet the title of producer nevertheless doesn’t do all her contributions justice; sure she did producer-like stuff, such as fundraising to cover the cost of production, but she also did everything from set design to feeding the crew (“The best part about Obayashi Production is catering” states cinematographer Yoshitaka Sakamoto).

It goes without saying that each and every fan of Nobuhiko Obayashi must absolutely see this amazing behind the curtain look; despite his body succumbing to age and illness, it is crystal clear via his editing directives given to at the helm of Final Cut Pro for Labyrinth of Cinema that his mind is just as razor sharp as it was when making 8/16mm shorts. But the intimate moments between Nobuhiko & Kyoko Obayashi that we are privy to is the true value of this document; by my fave part is when Nobuhiko becomes ill during an editing session, and Kyoko (knowing it’s what her husband wants) insists that the documentary cameras keep rolling.

You can view Seijo Story: 60 Years of Making Films, via online rental, from July 17 to 30, by clicking this link.

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