School in the Crosshairs (1981) opens with Yuka, played by Idol Hiroko Yakushimaru, waking up to see the world outside her window spinning, as if the room was flying through the sky. She looks out warmly, like this happens everyday. As she heads to school the strip of colour in the middle of the black & white frame fills the screen, and stop motion turns to dropped frames; much like Satoshi Kon’s one minute short Ohayo (2007), it shows a world coming alive, order forming from chaos, in Kon’s film it’s a mundane and personal chaos but in Nobuhiko Obayashi’s it’s mundane and almost cosmic.
It would be foolish to ascribe a direct meaning to his techniques, part of the beauty of Obayashi’s style is that it’s in a way quotidian. Sometimes he’ll slip in a musical number or have a character dancing in an establishing shot, there doesn’t have to be a reason, little moments of style just wander in sometimes. This allows for obvious visual language, a young boy on a tricycle riding in the front of an unrelated shot—seconds later he’s being saved from being hit by a truck by Yuka, suddenly awakening her psychic powers—to become surprising again. He could have simply been in the front of the frame because Obayashi thought it would be cool.
I’m sure in the eyes of legendary producer Haruki Kadokawa the young idols of this and many of his other films were the whole point, a big act of cross promotion, but Obayashi has a more complicated relationship to them. When little kids look up the school girls’ skirts, we see what they see, there’s a complicit pleasure we’re supposed to take whilst innocent Yuka remains blissfully unaware; the worst case reading of the opening scene is that her purity is what brings colour to the world, a cosmic ingenue. But when her powers are unlocked and that strip of colour returns, it’s clearly a menstrual metaphor and so her innocence is more from being a child than being some divinely pure object, though she never fully escapes being idolised. She gets the highest grades and when another psychic student Takamizawa (Masami Hasegawa) joins the school and uses her powers to turn it fascist—hall monitors patrolling give the Nazi salute with one pointed finger—Yuka is never meaningfully tempted despite sharing her abilities.
I think the film is specifically about hitting puberty early and the isolation of being in a different place from your peers, shown in a beautiful shot after Yuka uses her powers to help her love interest Koji (Ryôichi Takayanagi) win a kendo tournament, she sits exhausted and distant amongst the cheering crowd. Takamizawa and the class’ second highest scorer, a cruel nerd (Makoto Tezuka), are drawn to fascism for the same reason, they take that isolation as a sign of superiority as many teen do. The awareness of their power in the world is in and of itself permission to enact it; test scores are taken as literal descriptors of value. It’s interesting that Yuka describes them as “right” but not “good”, this isn’t some recognition of the truth of hierarchy but a statement of anti-intellectualism, the only reason Yuka’s scores are better than the nerd’s is because of gym class, and the gym teacher is the only one fighting the school’s take over.
Obayashi paints fascism as an intellectual disease but also as a primal force. The strange man whispering in Yuka’s ear, tempting her—having already turned Takamizawa—reveals in the climax that he’s from Venus, not in the Alien-as-immigrant sense; it’s much more abstract and direct than that. He puts it quite clearly when he says he “symbolise[s] the universe’s intelligence.” This makes some sense in a story about children, fascism exists before you know what to call it, especially if you’re growing up in 1980’s Japan; it’s presence hangs low in the air. And Obayashi isn’t as blind to the influence of society as his characters are, he draws a direct line from exams to fascism, and the turn happens so quickly, with so little resistance, it’s as if the teachers were all quietly waiting for its return.
Family life isn’t innocent either, the increasingly surreal tranquility of home life is played in intense contrast with the drama and violence outside it. One of the film’s most confounding but clearly symbolic images though, is the white and empty picture frame Yuka’s parents give her. It acts as a portal to the strange low-rent special effects world of the final showdown with the Venusian. It’s not clear if the frame shows that no structure is without spirit, even an empty frame suggests what’s inside it, or if the gifts Yuka’s parents give her is what lets her defeat this evil force. Equally bizarre is the final scene, where after promising he will one day return, the Venusian appears in the sky like a star and winks at us. After Koji had just marvelled at how many stars thee are maybe suggests this threat is some sense small, maybe even a part of a cosmic balance.
I don’t want to dismiss its blindspots, it seems almost completely unaware of the way community can be used a shield against these forces, but I think the film would probably work less if it was more coherent. Obayashi’s work has always been a celebration of the irrational and the intuitive, and after all, the world isn’t so coherent, by his final film, Labyrinth of Cinema (2019), Obayashi had lost all interest in drawing lines between the chaotic and ordered; there’s no bedroom window to watch the world fly by through. In the face of death, it’s hard to imagine thinking anything else. But his most profound claim is that this is no less conducive to beauty or idealism, in the face of a force that claims not only to represent intelligence but the universe itself, Yuka’s argument is simply that she likes people.