His Motorbike, Her Island (1986) review

Introduction

With such a rich and varied oeuvre, it would be a sin to reduce Nobuhiko Obayashi to being merely the director of House (1977), Hanagatami (2017) or Labyrinth of Cinema (2019). Yet, it has not always been easy to get a hold of his films. Third Windows Films, finally rights this wrong by releasing the Nobuhiko Obayashi’s 80’s Kadokawa Years  boxed set in October. The set contains School In The Crosshairs (1981), The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (1983), The Island Closest to Heaven (1984), and His Motorbike, Her Island (1986). This time, we shine our psychoanalytic light on Obayashi’s adaptation of Yoshio Kataoka’s novel of the same name.

Third Windows Films

Review

One day, Ko Hashimoto (Riki Takeuchi) is approached by the brother of Fuyumi Watanabe (Noriko Watanabe), the girl he made love with. As he punches him, he orders Ko to take responsibility for hurting his sister within two or three days.    

Following his threat, Ko decides to leave the city and travel around with his Kawasaki motorcycle to think about what to do with Fuyumi. Not that much later, he encounters a girl, Miyoko Shiraishi (Kiwako Harada), who feels attracted by his beautiful gleaming motorcycle. After encountering Miyoko a second time, he decides to break up with Fuyumi.

His Motorbike, Her Island (1986) by Nobuhiko Obayashi

His Motorcycle, her Island is a strangely mesmerizing romance narrative that succeeds in elegantly visualizing what kind of impact a female subject can have on a male subject. Obayashi, moreover, delivers an illustration of the manner in which a male subject support his image of masculinity.    

From a psychoanalytic perspective, it is quite evident that Ko’s motorcycle functions as his phallus. His love for the curves of his Kawasaki motorcycle is not simply a matter of its shining beauty, but because this roaring object allows him to assume a position of being desirable for the female Other – he has the phallus/motorcycle for the female Other. 

What happens between Ko and Fuyumi – i.e. a motorcycle ride that ends in a sexual encounter – is highly illustrative of the phallic role the motorcycle plays. Ko does not only utilize his motorcycle to show off his phallic desirability, but, as his Kawasaki is his phallus, he is persuaded to read Fuyumi’s wish to ride his motorcycle as a confession of her desire for him and as an indirect sexual invitation (Narra-note 1).

His Motorbike, Her Island (1986) by Nobuhiko Obayashi

So, why does he feel attracted to Miyoko, despite having his phallus? Is it merely because she shows interest in his motorcycle, his phallic object? The answer to these questions lies, in our view, in her care-free presence. She installs a distance between them that allows her to seductively invite his intimacy but also ensure that she remains an object that ultimately escapes his grasp. To put it in a rather crude way, she presents herself as an eroticised apple that playfully forbids the male Other to take a bite.

In this way, Miyoko succeeds in keeping Ko in a desiring state – and evade the relational reduction to a state of boredom full of tears and cooking. Obayashi beautifully highlights this in His Motorcycle, Her Island by compositionally evoking the effect of his memories of her on his current subjective state. His motorcycle accident, for instance, is merely function of the intrusion of his desire for Miyoko.

Yet, we should also answer the question of what binds Miyoko to Ko. Obayashi beautifully shows that she only loves Ko via the presence of the motorcycle. In other words, the motorcycle is the intermediary object – the imaginary phallus – that grants Ko his phallic shine. Yet, the beloved motorcycle, as cut of from Ko’s body, can easily taken away (Narra-note 2). 

His Motorbike, Her Island (1986) by Nobuhiko Obayashi

Obayashi’s composition stands out due to its energetic wildness. The source of this compositional wildness is not, as one might assume, his reliance on dynamism as such, but his rich integration of jump-cuts. They way Obayashi utilizes these cuts does not merely cause the continuity to fleetingly stumble, but infuses an unruly kind of haste within the narrative by subtly messing with the spectator’s sense of time. Obayashi also utilizes many other cinematic decorations to emphasize the subjective importance of certain moments.

The energetic wildness of Obayashi’s composition is echoed in the flow of the varied musical accompaniment. As the narrative unfolds, the music transforms accordingly – light-hearted tunes change to overly-dramatic pieces of music to reshape themselves to romantic or subtly melancholic classical music. Moreover, as these pieces often decorate scenes in a continuous manner, the jarring effect of the cuts is diminished – yet not erased.

What also stands out in His Motorbike, Her Island is the colour-design. Obayashi’s experimental play with monochrome and chromatic colours is not only visually interesting, but also meaningful. It is, for instance, by leaving the edges of the frame in monochrome colours in the opening sequence that Obayashi elegantly echoes that Ko’s derives his happiness from riding his beloved motorcycle. The intrusion of chromatic colours within the monochrome coloured space, signal, in a certain sense, the object and dynamic that allows Ko to gain pleasure in his life.     

His Motorbike, Her Island (1986) by Nobuhiko Obayashi

Obayashi’s thoughtful play with colour also demands the spectator to interpret other colour-shifts as well as Ko’s contradictory statement that his dreams are always monochrome (Narra-note 3). Does the burst of colour that follows the first encounter with Miyoko not imply that her presence rather than the beautiful shine of his motorcycle caused a surge of Eros in him?

Yet, is it merely the surges of Ko’s pleasure that determines Obayashi’s play of colour (Cine-note 1)? In our view, what truly determines the flow of colour and pleasure is whether Ko’s can position himself as a phallus for the female other or if he is revealed as not being able to uphold this phallic position, for example when the female Other confronts him with his subjective lack and exposes him as desiring. It is, as a matter of fact, only when he succeeds to retreat in his phallic shell of masculinity that colours burst forth. The monochrome moments subtly echo the crack in that shell caused by the seductive elegance of the female subject, i.e. by Miyoko’s elegant and care-free presence. So when Ko tells the spectator, in the beginning of the narrative, that this story is a monochrome dream, he tells us that his story is all about becoming a subject that desires.

His Motorcycle, Her Island could have been an ordinary and forgettable romance narrative, but Obayashi ensures that this narrative, after so many years, still succeeds in captivating and mesmerize the spectator. What makes Obayashi’s narrative so effective after all these years is the fact that he, with his play with monochrome and chromatic colours, enables the spectator to feel how the seductive presence of a woman disturbs the phallic position of the male subject.    

Notes

Narra-note 1: The duel between Ko and Fuyumi’s brother is, of course, phallic in nature.

Narra-note 2: The narrative also beautifully illustrated the different role the motorcycle for each in the game of romance and desire. Ko feels desirable by having a motorcycle, while Miyoko makes herself desirable – she is the phallus – by taming the motorcycle so beautifully. 

Narra-note 3: The fact that Ko and Fuyumi’s motorcycle ride and their sexual encounter is bathed in monochrome colours implies that Ko only approached Fuyumi sexually due to her interest in his motorcycle, in his phallus.

Yet, the polychrome shots that follow this flashback betray that Ko derived some pleasure from being desired by Fuyumi – Then, is it alright to fall in love?

Cine-note 1: Chromatic moments can be said to highlight the pleasure-in-the-moment (e.g. driving on the motorcycle) or highlight the pleasure that lingers after an impactful moment.

This divide echoes that Ko’s pleasure is first and foremost determined by the phantasmatic use he makes of his motorcycle – the motorcycle is the rock upon which he built his masculinity. Due to this, one can argue that the pleasure he attains from interacting with Fuyumi and Miyoko is mediated by the phallic presence of his motorcycle.

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