The Drifting Classroom (1987) by Nobuhiko Obayashi

Based on the horror manga by Kazuo Umezu, “The Drifting Classroom” follows a group of International School students in Kobe after their classroom is lost in a time-slip. Shou (Yasufumi Hayashi) leaves home after arguing with his mother, heading out to school where he meets up with his other classmates. Not long into the school day the building begins to shake. At first believing it is an earthquake, the teachers and children try to remain calm as they assess the damage. However, looking out of the window they see that they are in a mysterious desert-like world. They are later threatened by aliens attacking the school. They must learn to adapt and survive in this hostile new environment, while back in Kobe the people speculate about the sudden disappearance of the school.

“The Drifting Classroom” is a chaotic, action-packed, children’s adventure film with dark undertones. It shifts rapidly from a spirit of light-hearted comedy as the children explore this new world, their familiar surroundings made unfamiliar as they are now filled with sand, and terrifying horror as giant insect-like aliens arrive to terrorize them. The film mixes in other elements such as survival drama as they elect a leader and try to work out how to live on the supplies available in the school. The young cast do a great job, bringing a youthful exuberance to their roles. The primary characters are Shou, Mark (Thomas Sutton), Ayumi (Aiko Asano) and the youngest Yu, but the supporting cast do a fantastic job in creating a sense of barely controlled chaos, such as you might expect in a school full of children in such circumstances. Obayashi’s direction is suited to this bizarre blend of science-fiction, horror, and adventure, with the sympathetic camera moving wildly in concert with the cast. The ambitious story, involving time-slips, other worlds, and aliens, is achieved with a blend of CG special effects, green screen, and stop motion creature work. It is a story full of twists that is endlessly entertaining.

While the premise of the film, a school caught in a timeslip, seems like it would lend itself to a relatively slight fantasy drama, there is a dark subtext to “The Drifting Classroom” that sets it above a simple throwaway adventure tale.

If you wish to avoid spoilers, please check out the film before reading further.

Part way through the film, Shou finds a memorial in the desert with the names of all the teachers and pupils he is stranded with. Other hints in the film, such as a character telling Shou’s mother that “children always go to the future”, and the slow pull out shot at the end of the film, indicate that in fact these children are marooned on a hostile post-apocalyptic earth, devastated possibly by nuclear war (an earlier scene sees one adult shouting “they finally pushed the button”). The film doesn’t shy away from death, with many students perishing due to a lack of food, and the aforementioned memorial. It confronts it’s audience, primarily children, with these harsh realities about life. The filling of the school with sand is an incredible visual metaphor for the timeslip they have gone through. They are literally trapped in the sands of time, left abandoned by previous generations thoughtless or reckless actions. Though there is hope at the end of the film, it is slight, with the children abandoned to their fate on this inhospitable planet, presumably ruined by those that came before. The ecological, anti-nuclear message is never made explicitly, but it is clearly there. A fantastical adventure with a troubling message about the world we leave to future generations.

Labyrinth of Cinema (2019) by Nobuhiko Obayashi

At a seaside cinema, local residents gather for the final night of their closing down film festival to watch a showing of several war films. Among the patrons are three young men, film fanatic Mario (Takuro Atsuki), history buff Hosuke (Takahito Hosoyamada), and a young gang member Shigeru (Yoshihiko Hosoda), as well as a mysterious young girl name Noriko (Rei Yoshida). Also present is a man who has recently arrived from a spaceship, Fanta G. (Yukihiro Takahashi) (You didn’t think an Obayashi film would be that straightforward, did you?). When a lightning storm strikes, the three young men find themselves transported into the films with Noriko, who they swear to protect from the violence raging around them. What follows is a journey through Japanese military and literary history as they travel from old black-and-white samurai films through the action-packed Second World War epics, and later to that fateful day in 1945 when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.

From the off it is clear that Obayashi (House, Hanagatami) intends to create something that is not so much a film as a monument to the past, a celebration of cinema, and a stirring political screed. Fanta G. sets the tone early on as he tells us about certain historical events from his objective fourth-wall breaking perspective. Throughout the film text appears on screen to give historical details, and at times “Labyrinth of Cinema” feels more like a history lesson or documentary than a conventional narrative. That is not to say that it is boring. By having the three young men travel into the films we are given not only the filmic version of historical events, but their modern take on them, along with explanations of the real history. Obayashi employs his familiar collage approach to film-making, with abundant use of blue screen, frenetic camera direction, brightly coloured scenes, and this hand-made, stitched together look gives everything a unique charm. The framing device of the three men being drawn into the films gives some sense of structure, but for the most part it is a more experiential approach. It can be confusing, with the characters jumping back and forth through time periods, in and out of the films they are watching, and at a certain point you have to give up attempting to make logical sense of it and just let it wash over you like a mesmeric psychedelic phantasmagoria. The film can be moving when it needs to be, particularly as it moves towards the tragedy of Hiroshima, building tension through the cumulation of these various historical tragedies. The main cast do a great job with the unconventional material, charismatic enough to hold their own against the frenetic camerawork and colourful visuals. The large supporting cast includes film directors Isshin Inudo and Makoto Tezuka, and Tadanobu Asano among others, again giving the film a collaborative feel that draws you in with the enthusiasm all involved clearly have for cinema.

Obayashi is a lifelong anti-war auteur and film fanatic and “Labyrinth of Cinema” is a poignant tribute to war films, highlighting the virtues expressed in them, and the joy of gung-ho action, whilst condemning the terrible atrocities that were committed. Film lovers can luxuriate in this three-hour epic which captures that experience of being completely enraptured in a film. Obayashi’s love of cinema shines through, as well as his conviction that art has the power to change the world. The character of Noriko at first seems like a heroine that these brave men are trying to rescue. However, as things progress and we see her in each time period, we learn that she signifies much more. Her name, it is explained, means “Child of Hope”, and it is this hope that the protagonists are trying to protect; they are fighting to maintain their own innocence in the face of centuries of war and horrors. The hope that the next generation of children will not fall prey to the same violent tendencies that marred the past. The film is also strewn with the poems of Chuya Nakashima, further emphasising the contrast between the beauty of creation through art, with the terrible destructive consequences of war. The length and arthouse style typical of Obayashi’s oeuvre are here used to deliver a powerful experience that sheds light on the history of film, warfare and humanity’s contradictory nature in its propensity towards both violence and hope.

Hanagatami (2017) by Nobuhiko Obayashi

As the second world war looms, a group of teenagers are drawn together by friendships and romances that will come to define them. 17 year old Toshihiko (Shunsuke Kubozuka) becomes good friends with two of his classmates, the stoic and philosophical Kira (Keishi Nagatsuka) and the cool and inspiring Ukai (Shinnosuke Mitsushima). He admires both for their apparent lack of fear and mature outlook on life, which contrast sharply with Takashi’s own wide-eyed naivety. Meanwhile, Mina (Honoka Miki) is confined to her room through tuberculosis, looked after by her widowed sister-in-law, Takashi’s aunt (Takako Tokiwa). Her friends Akine (Hirona Yamazaki) and Chitose (Mugi Kadowaki) come to visit her in her room, attempting to keep up her spirits in the face of her terminal illness. As the war grows nearer they are forced to confront the various tragedies that await them.

Nobuhiko Obayashi’s (House) final work is a colourful, experimental, impressionist look at youth in the lead up to war. Based on a 1937 novella by his friend Kazuo Dan, Obayashi sat on the completed script for the film for forty years before finally deciding the time was right to direct. The film is set in Katsura and the production recruited many locals as staff and extras. The use of Katsura’s cultural festival makes the film historically significant as it is the first time this has been filmed.

“Hanagatami” is full of Obayashi’s inimitable style and bizarre directorial choices. The film is bookended with narration explaining that it is based on a book and throughout it often engenders a sense of dramatic alienation from the action. The early sequences in particular play with notions of time and place as characters step between scenes. The use of superimposed images, digital effects and often inexplicable decisions such as reversing camera angles during dialogue scenes all characterise Obayashi’s style. It is something akin to looking at a collage composed of various scraps of ideas, beautiful and bizarre imagery, that helps to build up a whole picture of theme, place and character. The film uses bold colours and harsh theatrical lighting and there is a sense of surrealism and fantasy woven through the more straightforward teenage drama plot. The performances of the leads, in particular Shunsuke Kubozuka as Toshihiko are theatrically exaggerated caricatures that chime well with the often chaotic style. All of the cast give great performances, including supporting roles from Takehiro Murata as an anti-war teacher and Takako Tokiwa as Takahashi’s aunt. The melodrama of the acting and direction is underscored by a soundtrack that repeats several songs and melodies, each of which come to represent a particular emotion. It is film that is abundant with metaphors, the white snake, the red rose petal becoming a droplet of blood, cherry blossom, the sea, but never dwells on these things or allows them to become the story. The unconventional style and parade of evocative imagery, poetry and philosophical musings are overwhelming at times, but Obayashi always draws us back to the protagonists and their personal journeys through a tale that is rich in universal meaning.

Obayashi has crafted a uniquely engaging and deeply emotional drama that blends traditional and experimental techniques. His style is provocative and will not appeal to everyone. It feels distinct and unfamiliar, with its art-house aesthetic, often almost cartoonish visuals distracting from the story. But if you let go of any preconceptions about how film should be made there is much to enjoy here. The film has a strong anti-war message, in particular noting the futility and horror of war. By showing us the carefree existences of the characters in the build up of hostilities we come to understand everything that is lost in war, innocence, friendships, and hope for the future. The film also gives us a prism through which to see the war, with each character representing a unique view on events and their own impression of what is happening. “Hanagatami” feels like a labour of love for the director and those working on the production. It encapsulates everything that was unique about Obayashi’s work, a timeless yet truly original story.