By Mark Schilling
A pioneering Japanese indie filmmaker, whose long list of credits include commercial hits (Exchange Students, Samurai Kids) and critical favorites (Beijing Watermelon, Prime of a Woman), Nobuhiko Obayashi is returning to the Berlin Film Festival with The Motive, an epic-length (160 minute) murder mystery based on a best-selling novel by Miyuki Miyabe. "The title is ironic," explains Obayashi. "You don't understand the motive for the killings by the end of the novel. What you do get is a very realistic portrait of present-day Japan."
To impart that sense of reality to his film, Obayashi cast a total of 107 roles, each representing a slice of Japanese society in the post-bubble era. He recruited many well-known names (including Itokku Kishibe, Akira Emoto and Yuko Kotegawa) and others not so well-known. All of the cast, famous or no, performed without make-up, often looking straight into the lens, as if being interviewed for a news documentary. "I didn't want them to play characters -- I wanted them to be themselves," he said.
At the same time, Obayashi shot the film in what he described as an "orthodox style, with cranes shots, dolly shots and the all the rest." The result is not a faux documentary, not a conventional film, but something in between. "The cameraman and the rest of the staff were surprised when they first saw the finished film," he said, with a laugh. "They didn't know what to expect."
While Obayashi enjoyed upsetting expectations in bringing Miyabe's novel to the screen -- "They said it was impossible to film" he commented -- his ultimate aim was to make it comprehensible to a general audience. "A lot of young Japanese directors are making private films that speak only to them," he explained. "But to me true indie films are personal -- in other words, they are a personal dialogue between the director and the audience. They say something to someone other than the director himself."