School In The Crosshairs (1981) 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 Taku Mayumura’s novel of the same name.

Review

Mr. Yamagata (Koichi Miura) is appalled to hear, on the first day of the new term, that the principal plans to cut all extra-curricular activities to keep the students focused on studying. Another teacher (Goroh Oishi) tries to reason with him by telling him that by removing the temptation for students, who are only good at P.E., to neglect their studies they can avoid an increase in bad students and keep the prestige of the school high, but Yamagata silently rejects such reasoning.

On her way back home from school, Yuka Mitamura (Hiroko Yakushimaru) succeeds, much to her own surprise, to bend time to safe a young child on a tricycle from a certain death. Yuka’s friend, Koji Seki (Ryôichi Takayanagi), who is surprised by this strange event, does not realize Yuka caused it. Not much later, she is approached by a mysterious guy (Tōru Minegishi) and a new student, Michiru Takamizawa (Masami Hasegawa), starts at her school.

School In The Crosshairs (1981) by Nobuhiko Obayashi

School In The Crosshairs fucntions as an unsubtle allegory about the rise of fascism that explores the destructive impact such valorisation of ideals and imperatives has on subjects. The basic tension that structures the narrative – and allows one to grasp the fascistic dynamic better – is the difference in Yuka and Koji’s societal class. By evoking the difference in class, Obayashi shows that what the ‘fascist’ utilizes already lingered within the societal fabric, within the consciousness of the working class.  

It is not surprising that Yuka, who was born in a bourgeois family, is allowed by her parents to take time to find out who she is as subject. The picture frame she receives for her eighteenth birthday emphasizes this. While her parents offer her a frame with their parenting, they grant her the freedom to express herself.   

In the Seki household, a rather stereotypical Showa-era working class family, things are different – Koji deals with a different Other than Yuka’s bourgeois Other. This different flavour of Koji’s Other is revealed when his father hears about his bad test-results at school (Narra-note 1). His academic failure is not only considered a stain on his father’s reputation but also a betrayal of his late mother’s dream – Koji should go to university. The emphasis on the dynamic of the familial reputation – i.e. the duty the eldest son has with respect to the name of the father – and the desire of the (m)Other, means that there is no place for his own desire, no freedom to find who he is and who he wants to be (Narra-note 2).  

School In The Crosshairs (1981) by Nobuhiko Obayashi

Yet, Koji does succeed in fleetingly escaping the weight of his Other by practicing Kendo. He has a desire to pursue kendo – he is, in fact, the key-player of the school’s club, but his attempts to communicate such desire are drowned by the father’s wailing about tradition and the effort to persuade him to assume the mother’s desire as his own (Narra-note 3).   

Everything starts to change with the sudden appearance of Michiru Takamizawa. This transfer student does not only have powers like Yuka, but, on her first day at school, she readily introduces her ambition to become the next chairman of the Student Union. At the subsequent school-meeting, her intentions are revealed when she calls the signified of the signifier freedom into question. For her, freedom is merely synonymous with the selfish search for pleasure, the unwanted crack that the subject finds within the Other to fleetingly escape its weight.

This ‘freedom’ is, in other words, a subjective pleasure that does not fit the Other because it does not follow the imperative of the Other – you shall devote all your time to studying! Those who do take this alienating imperative as their guiding light are merely disobedient and their bad scores a sign of their failure to satisfy the demands of the vicious Other. What Takamizawa, in other words, wants to install is an external uber-ich structure, a structure that forbids pleasure to subjects but, by subjecting them to its alienating commands and correctional measures, ends up enjoying them.   

School In The Crosshairs (1981) by Nobuhiko Obayashi

Takamizawa’s ultimate goal become evident when campus control, a disciplinary patrol which exercises correctional actions against misbehaviour, in installed and students are send to Eiko cram school, a school that, via mind-control, turns subjects into mere empty shells full of knowledge, a-subjective bodies repeating knowledge. What Takamizawa brings about is nothing other than a crusade against subjectivity, against the bourgeois freedom to struggle to find one own’s identity and one’s own path in one’s life.   

Such oppressive system does not only grant those who like Arikawa (Macoto Tezuka) felt oppressed a position of power, but a position that, as long as it last, allows the subject to enjoy the other. What Arikawa ultimately enjoys in this position is nothing other than the ravishing effects of the law, the enjoyment of the law itself as it sweeps through the campus de-subjectifying all those who resist the glory of the imperative.  

Faced with such formidable foe, can Yuka succeed in harnessing her power, defeat Michiru Takamizawa and those who work together with her, and destroy the societal impulse to smash any kind of surge of subjectivity and mould the subject into a lifeless robot of knowledge in the name of the ideals within the (Japanese) Other (Narra-note 4 (spoiler)?

School In The Crosshairs (1981) by Nobuhiko Obayashi

The composition of School In The Crosshairs offers a balanced blend between dynamism and static moments as well between visually ‘plain’ moments and sequences marked by visual extravagance. Obayashi opens, once again, his magical box of visual decorations to dazzle the spectator with psychedelic imagery and special effects that feel outlandish but also have a comical charm.

Some of these visual effects only have a decorative function, like the stop-motion-like effects and the unusual shot-transitions, but others have an additional narrative function, like the greenish swirl and the piece of flute-music that signal that Yuka is changing, with the power of her fears or desire, the outcome of certain events. For his finale, Obayashi puts out all the stops, offering a visually exciting and extravagant psychedelic experience, yet the impact of the finale is sabotaged by a lack of tension and an absence of an emotional pay-off. In truth, any impact the finale might have on the spectator, is due to Obayashi’s visual extravagance as the script fails to deliver an emotionally satisfying denouement to its thematical exploration of fascism.

The composition is also full of collage-like composite effects that infuse a certain unheimlich feeling in the environments. The unheimlich effect is not simply function of the collage-technique, but of the slightly unusual lightning and the more intense colour contrasts that results from this visual play. Contrasts between chromatic and monochrome colours are, for that matter, not only used to subtly highlight the youthful beauty of Hiroko Yakushimaru, who plays the main character Yuka, but also to strengthen a certain tremble in the subjective equilibrium of Yuka (Cine-note 1).

School In The Crosshairs (1981) by Nobuhiko Obayashi

The musical accompaniment is either used to emphasize the emotion that linger within certain signifiers – it is, in other words, the music rather than the way the signifiers are uttered that reveals the emotional echo of said signifiers, to add some light-heartedness to the narrative by letting the rhythm of the music fleetingly coincide with the rhythm of the on-screen movement or to emphasize a warmness in the presence of Yuka and her interactions with Koji. Decorative non-diegetic sounds or sudden surges of music are employed to add a comical touch to certain moments within the narrative (e.g. the sound of zipper closing when some boys zip their mouth shut).

Just like Tomoyo Harada in The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (1983), Hiroko Yakushimaru washes away any lack of finesse with her charming presence and elegant and innocent demeanour (Acting-note 1). It is her presence that plays an important role in keeping the spectator captivated throughout the narrative.  

School In The Crosshairs is a heart-warming sci-fi flick that dazzles the spectator with its expressive and colourful effects. Yet, while the finale delivers a pleasing psychedelic experience, its narrative structure fails to accompany such visual feast with an emotional punch. Still, this early idol-film by Obayashi remains well worth a watch.    

Notes

General-note 1: School In The Crosshairs is the first idol film Haruki Kadokawa and Obayashi made together. An idol-film aims to celebrate the idol and offer the body-image to the fans. In short, such kind of film exploits the body-image of a popular idol to broaden her appeal to the masses and boost profit of different media-products (books, music, and movie). The idol-film can, in other words, only function within a media-mix dynamic.

Other idol films both made together were The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (1983) and The Island Closest To Heaven (1984).

Narra-note 1: School In The Crosshairs also offers an insight into the test-based structure of Japanese education and the blind focus on test-results.

Narra-note 2: It is, in fact, rather ironic that one of the main reasons why he does not invest into studying concerns the fact that has already accepted the traditional demand to care of the family business. It is this demand that, in a certain way, forbids to have his own desire.

Narra-note 3: His room is full of objects and images that signal his desire to the Other, but to no avail. The Other does not want to see.

Narra-note 4: Some spectators might wonder what exactly allows Yuka to defeat her foes. Some might argue it is love, it is Eros. Yet, it is not that simple. What, in our view, allows her to defeat her ‘fascistic’ foes is that she is able to accept the Thanatos that resides in every Eros. It is because she is willing to sacrifice herself to ensure that the others retain their freedom to search, on their own accord, who they want to be and to safeguard the subject’s right to play with the ideals and demands of the Other.

What Yuka ultimately loves is the gap that exists between the subject and Other, a gap that grants the subject to right to search for himself and allows the societal Other to transform as time passes.  

Cine-note 1: Besides using colour-contrast in such a way, Obayashi also uses his dynamism to emphasize Hiroko Yakushimaru’s beauty and to subtly eroticize her youthfulness. For instance, early on in the narrative, Obayashi employs a zoom-in movement to fleetingly focus on the beautiful shape of her mouth and lips.

The same close-up is, for that matter, also used to emphasize the shape of Ryôichi Takayanagi’s lips.

Acting-note 1: One might even say that the very lack in acting heightens the charm she exudes on the screen.

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