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Nobuhiko Obayashi’s His Motorbike, Her Island starts small. The film’s first images are tiny and squareish black-and-white, dwarfed by large black bars on all sides. Ko Hashimoto is a motorbike enthusiast and delivery driver, going about his work day. The frame grows taller as he’s confronted by the brother of his girlfriend Fuyumi, who demands he breaks up with her. It’s like the image bursts into shape with the arrival of this antagonistic figure, changing its height to suit his towering and intimidating presence. Once the work is done, Ko takes a nighttime ride, just him and his bike. It’s dark out, so dark that the distinction between frame and masking is briefly lost.
And as he rides, the sun rises, and the images comes to life. The new light reveals a fully wide frame, and inflections of color at its center. The margins of the image remain in black-and-white, but Ko and his bike at the image’s center are brightly colored, like they’re the only living things in the world.
“Some guys have vividly colored dreams, but mine were always in monochrome,” Ko explains. “This is the story of one of those monochrome dreams.”
The film shifts back and forth between grayscale and full color with wild abandon. Sometimes it changes multiple times in the same shot. Often part of the screen is in color and the rest is black-and-white. Are the black-and-white segments dreams, or perhaps memories? There’s no recognizable pattern to these shifts, nothing narrative on which to pin an explanation. It’s a dizzying effect. One can’t help but wonder, how much of the image can we trust? Like many Obayashi films, the answer is “as much as you want to.” He’s never overly concerned with established reality. The film, he seems to say, is just the film. Take it as you will.
And so we have a film where time and memory, past and present, dream and reality all flow in and out of each other, flirting at the edges, and eventually sharing the same frame. What is recollection? What is a hopeful dream? What is now, and what is then? For Obayashi, it’s all the same thing. It’s not non-linear, exactly; that would imply a new linearity constructed of back-and-forth leaps in time. It’s more like everything is happening at once, all in the same images.
This culminates in a color campfire scene wherein the light from the flames reflects so brightly on the main characters’ skin that they appear to be flickering back to monochrome. The moment echoes through time and space, at once blissful present and nostalgic past. It’s a breathtaking image, the creation of a memory visualized.
Calling a film “dreamlike” is hacky, but it’s appropriate in this case. Watching His Motorbike, Her Island feels like drifting in and out of restful sleep, with the rumble of an engine beneath you. It provides a comforting uncertainty as it pleasantly ambles through the beats of its central romance. So many of Obayashi’s films, particularly his early ones, rattle with the restless energy of a filmmaker eager to experiment with form. While this is by no means a relaxed film, it has a casual confidence that befits the uber-cool cinematic connotation of motorcyclists.
The clear source of inspiration here is 50s Americana, particularly films like Rebel Without a Cause, whose cliffside game of chicken is reflected here in a midnight motorcycle joust. Even in the 80s, when the film was released, the era was the pinnacle of American nostalgia. It seems Obayashi picked up on this. The time period of the film feels more contemporary, but its narration by an older Ko fills it with yearning for bygone days. It’s a film about desperately clinging to your memories, and how memories can desperately cling to you as well. Time in this film isn’t something under our control. The past pulls us back as much as we reach for it. We live inside our memories, whether we like it or not.
This theme is constant throughout Obayashi’s filmography. From more literal appearances in early work like The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, to the abstract remembrances of his most recent film Hanagatami, from a man wandering through the streets of his recollections in The Deserted City to a man obsessed with the ghostly reappearance of his late parents in The Discarnates, we find characters both delighted and tormented by a past they cannot escape. Even in his debut feature, House, the titular sinister building is animated not by pure uncomplicated malice, but by despair over the continued absence of someone whose life was stolen too early. It is Obayashi’s most enduring fixation.
While I adore all the films mentioned above, I believe he realizes it most compellingly in His Motorbike, Her Island. It’s here where it takes shape with the most chronological abstraction, but it’s also here we find Obayashi most at peace with the past. Whether you find the film’s conclusion tragic or hopeful, whether or not you believe in its happy ending, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is whether or not you’re comfortable with your own answers, and by extension your own history. By the time this monochrome dream runs out, it hopes you’ll be ready to wake up.