Film Review: Nobuhiko Obayashi’s “I Are You, You Am Me”

It’s difficult to categorize Nobuhiko Obayashi’s filmography after the bat-shit insanity of his debut feature “House” (1977). His later pictures still exhibit the freewheeling visual and narrative sensibility cultivated since his early experimental phase.  However, that anarchic gonzo style began to cool down by the start of the ‘80s, replaced with a more wistful appreciation for the past. Adapting a novel by Hisashi Yamanaka, the director kicked off the decade with the 1982 picture “I Are You, You Am Me” (転校生) or as it was also alternately known as, “Exchange Student.”

Part fantasy, comedy and coming-of-age story, “I Are You, You Am Me” differentiates itself from the rest of the teen dramedies popping up in theaters throughout the ‘80s by diverting from the low hanging fruit of gross-out humor and raunch. In fact, though the film is set in the present day, it is as much about Obayashi’s past as it is about his teenage protagonists. It may come as a bit of a surprise that the director had actually been born and grew up in the very city that the film is set in, and this picture is a love letter to his hometown.

Opening with the sounds of a whirring projector followed by black and white footage of the port town of Onomichi, Obayashi wastes no time in establishing the adventure we’re about to take. The bustling city looks timeless thanks to the use of black-and-white footage and the home movie-esque quality of the images. Accompanying the monochrome moving images is a lilting violin score. European in tune, the melody might be jarring to those expecting a generic instrumental score or something more “Japanese,” but of course with a director like Obayashi at the helm, nothing is just ordinary.

The score further illustrates the film’s themes of youth, love, gender, and the longing for a past that no longer exists. Obayashi even utilizes the French composer Jacques Offenbach’s “Infernal Galop” – often mistakenly called the “can-can” dance – from his operetta “Orpheus in the Underworld.” It makes sense for Obayashi to use Offenbach’s lively and energetic tunes for the action set pieces, but an extra layer of cleverness is revealed when one thinks about the connections between the Orpheus myth (possibly the first ever recorded tragic love story) and the can-can (a scandalous dance that obliterated the notions of masculinity and femininity) to the film.

With a premise that steals liberally from “Freaky Friday” (1976), the plot of “I Are You, You Am Me” is predicated on two teenage souls switching bodies after an incident at a Buddhist temple. It wouldn’t be a surprise if the boy – Kazuo Saitō (Toshinoru Omi), a film nut whose residence is littered with camera equipment and movie posters – is a surrogate for the director himself. Famed actress Satomi Kobayashi plays the girl, Kazumi Saitō, and it’s no surprise that she gained a great deal of acclaim for her performance. Both actors do a spectacular job playing against gender type, but Satomi pulls off the almost impossible task of convincing us that she is really a boy inside the young girl’s frame.

Obayashi spends the majority of the runtime dissecting and disproving the notion that gender is primarily a biological construct. Whenever Kazumi is reprimanded for not acting like a lady, her rebuttal is to physically parody the behavior she is supposed to do. A brilliant comedienne, Satomi has such a natural ability to perform physical comedy that you can’t help but grin throughout. Toshinoru, an Obayashi regular, has less screen time than Satomi, but his transformation from moody teenage boy to uber-sensitive young man is equally funny and poignant.

Aside from the comedy, the relationship between the two leads is, to say the least, unique. Kazuo and Kazumi have a somewhat frustrating friendship due to Obayashi’s lack of attention to it, but the longer each of them inhabits the other’s body the more they grow to love one themselves/the other person. The title itself states the entire crux of the romantic subplot; Kazuo is Kazumi and Kazumi is Kazuo.

“I Are You, You Am Me” was a harbinger of a new Nobuhiko Obayashi. It won’t satisfy fans looking for another “House” fix, but don’t let your expectations get the better of you. This picture is far more sedate compared to that initial film, yet as an artist and storyteller Obayashi grew by leaps and bounds. Very few people could direct a coming-of-age story that is as funny and honest as this film. The director’s future oeuvres would continue to mine the past, and his nostalgia for a far more romantic era has driven him to put all his dreams, memories, and fantasies onto celluloid, allowing them to live on in the minds of all those who watch.

“I Are You, You Am Me” will be screening on Saturday, November 21 at 7 p.m. as part of the Japan Society New York’s 2015 Nobuhiko Obayashi. The director will attend the screening.  For more information, visit