Promise between cancer-afflicted film director and late cinema icon Kurosawa
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Promise between cancer-afflicted film director and late cinema icon Kurosawa

    NHK World
    Correspondent
    Renowned 81-year-old Japanese film director Nobuhiko Obayashi was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2016 and given three months to live. But he refused to give up. He has completed one film since then, and is now directing his 44th feature. Driving him is a promise he made to a cinematic legend.
    Obayashi editing his newest film.

    Dubbed a "cinematic magician," Obayashi has captured the hearts and minds of fans with his dreamlike visual style.

    Men in green costumes latch on to a Japanese soldier. The set changes to night. Men disappear and only hands remain, coming out of the wall. Obayashi says with smile, "Every aspect must be entertaining. Let's enjoy it."

    Obayashi has been battling cancer for nearly 3 years. Radiation and chemotherapy have left him with a compromised immune system. Some days are especially trying. But one thing keeps him going -- a promise he made long ago to his mentor.

    Akira Kurosawa, master of cinema. The master appreciated Obayashi's early works. They formed a close bond during the final years of Kurosawa's life.

    In 2017, Obayashi spoke about the promise after learning he had cancer.
    "I was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer and given three months to live. I'm not supposed to be alive, but I still am. Legend Akira Kurosawa left a message for me and for the world's future film directors. I stand before you today, risking my life, to pass that message on to all of you."

    Kurosawa's message to Obayashi was this: "The beauty and power of film can save the world from war and lead it toward peace. If you can't do it, your children can. If not, your grandchildren can continue for me, little by little. Then one day, 400 years from now, someone will make my movie, and the power of film will erase all wars from the world."

    Obayashi shot a film last summer.

    Last summer, Obayashi began his latest project -- his response to Kurosawa's message. It's a war movie in which three young protagonists travel through time and experience a number of Japan's wars, including World War Two.

    In one scene in mainland China, the Japanese commanding officer orders his soldiers to kill civilians.
    "I can't kill people! " says one of the three young protagonists.

    "We really fear another war might break out at any time. We must not allow another war. I can't die until I've delivered that message," Obayashi says. "I thought I could help stop future wars by using my past experience of war. That's the theme of this movie."

    Obayashi is exploring the meaning of life and death in his work.

    "Express love for the grass and flowers. Everything is a part of life. You don't care about anything as foolish as war," says Obayashi to a young actor on set.
    "Show the way the grass affects you. As you look at it, you feel like you're looking at mankind."

    Obayashi during his childhood, with his mother.

    Obayashi's determination to make his war film comes not only from his promise to Kurosawa, but also from his childhood memories.
    Obayashi was 3 years old when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941. The war overshadowed much of his childhood.

    His drawings from that time show Zero fighters attacking the leaders of the United States and Britain. Obayashi took it for granted that he'd be conscripted one day, and he'd make the ultimate sacrifice.

    When Japan surrendered, Obayashi was 7 years old. Rumor had it that the occupying forces would come in and massacre everybody. His mother was consumed with fear. One night, Obayashi says he thought she would take his life.

    "With the country ravaged, we could not exist. Without a country, we are non-existent. Of course, my mother and I considered suicide. The war was getting under my skin. It seeped into my soul. And I involuntarily formed a hatred of war," Obayashi says.

    Since his advanced cancer diagnosis, he's on a mission to make the most of his experience as part of the last generation that lived through the war.

    "I've lived a life full of mistakes," Obayashi says. "I regret my mistakes, but I want to move forward in a better direction. We must not allow another war."

    Obayashi in Paris.

    Obayashi's recent works have been gathering attention from abroad. In February, he was invited to Paris to screen his previous films at a cultural festival. The event commemorated 160 years of Japan-France relations.

    Jean-Francois Rauger, a film selection committee member, explained the significance of inviting Obayashi.
    "Obayashi is like a little cinema revolution. His film brings new ideas to audiences."

    Jean-Francois Rauger, film selection committee

    After the screening, Obayashi shared with the international audience what he felt was the most important thing. It was Kurosawa's message.

    "Movies can't change history, but they can change the future course of history. Through the power of a movie’s expression, there are no friends or foes. It’s precisely because of our differences that we are accepting of them. We try to understand each other, forgive each other and coexist, even though we’re different. If we do this, there’ll be no need for war."

    One of the people in the audience said, "His promise to Kurosawa is also a promise to us. It’s very important to keep making movies."

    "Movies and their audience are partners in creating peace. I don't have much time. So it's no longer just about me. My illness has opened my eyes to many things," Obayashi said in Paris.
    "As a director, I'm at my peak now, I'm at my peak as I know my role, know what I'm doing. My life can be harnessed as power to help prevent future wars. The time is now for me to get moving on this. And this gives me strength."

    Since returning from Paris, Obayashi keeps editing, working toward a 2019 premiere.
    In one scene, the protagonists are in Hiroshima the day before the 1945 atomic bombing, but they fail to alter the course of history. They turn to the audience to emphasize that the audience has the power to make a difference.
    The three young protagonists say, "If viewers are indifferent, nothing will change." "Movies can't change history, but they can change the future." "It's up to the audience to make a happy ending."

    Nobuhiko Obayashi is now leaving it up to you.