“The heart is a willful thing. By the time something from the past is buried, another story has already begun.”
Nobuhiko Obayashi is a director who has been, and continues to be, immensely important to me. Of his films, His Motorbike, Her Island (1986) is closest to my heart. Based on a novel written by Yoshio Kataoka, the film presents the inevitable contrasting coexistence of sentimentality and change through twenty-two year olds who navigate youthful desire, love, and grief. Obayashi, who passed away almost a year ago in April 2020 — becoming part of the wind himself — was a master at stopping time through cinema, while also reminding us that we are constantly being propelled forward, no matter how much we linger in nostalgia for moments past. This film has a reflective narrative structure, characters who articulate nostalgia, love, and loss, while maintaining whimsy, and allows us to reminisce about the feeling of the wind against our faces, falling in love with people, places, and things, and process loss from a position of stagnancy.
The wind is its own character — a constant in memories and future, an ever-changing, unpredictable force carrying us forward, and the way for the two main lovers to become one (while riding their cool motorbikes). Obayashi’s signature playful editing toys with aspect ratios, sound, and jumping in and out from — and sometimes fusing — black and white with color. This reflects the subconscious altering done to our memories — some more vivid and bright than others, some more pleasant to recall — and the idealization we engage with. Temporality is distorted through memory and the feeling of being in love. Sense of self, objects, and seasons blend together as we are charmed into their story, occupying a space between point of reflection and the moments that are shared with us.
His Motorbike, Her Island is told through Ko’s point of view, as his voiceover reminisces about meeting Miyo, and their time spent together between his home in Tokyo and Miyo’s island on the Inland Sea. Ko is dissatisfied with life, including his girlfriend Fuyumi, who he criticizes for only knowing how to cook and cry (relatable). Miyo breezes into his life unexpectedly and captures him with his Kawasaki bike on her camera. A freeze frame and a flush of romantic music expresses Ko trying to stop the moment in time when he first sees Miyo’s face and hears her voice, while Miyo further cements the memory through photography. Miyo gets his address to later send the photos to him, sparking their letter correspondence that leads to one of the most endearing phone call scenes in cinema, which introduces their spontaneous theme, “The Song of the Wind,” that they echo to each other throughout these memories.
Initially, Ko is quite selfish, loving only his Kawasaki — an extension of himself, the partner he wants to spend his days with removed from concern for where they are or where they’ll go, a machine that doesn’t require emotional maintenance. Like his toy motorbike that spins in circles, Ko doesn’t have a particular destination when he drives, other than looking for the wind and then taking naps — until he meets Miyo, whose island is an extension of herself, and who becomes his destination. Contrasted against Fuyumi, Miyo is the “carefree” girl that garners Ko’s love, but with her bigger-than-life personality, she’s a force that makes Ko realize he cannot control relationships or people. Ko explains to Miyo that he rides because his motorbike is the only thing he can’t cheat his way through, but it is apparent that relationships and feelings are certainly another.
His Motorbike, Her Island is in part a meditation on romantic compatibility. Fuyumi is presented as an unhappy and boring girl through Ko’s eyes, and Ko mistreats her selfishly. Fuyumi’s character is an example of how someone can be their most vibrant alongside the right person, and Ko wasn’t that person for her, even though she loved him. Who you are in one relationship isn’t necessarily who you are with another person. After Fuyumi and Ko break up, she mournfully performs a song at the bar that they had written together during their relationship. When we are reintroduced to Fuyumi, she performs a new song, “Sunshine Girl,” written with Keiichi, and she is now the exclusive bar singer. This illustrates the process of how we hold onto previous relationships and change through them — she carries the song on but it is altered into something better (through a better relationship), but Ko’s impact on her life lingers. Relationships stay with us and inform us going forward. We’re wrapped in Ko’s story, but we see the process of grieving for and moving on from a relationship play out through Fuyumi first.
Miyo falls fast in developing her own passion for motorbikes, which is a bonding element for the two at first. As her desire and skill for riding surpasses Ko’s, it creates tension as he fears for her safety — he is afraid of her moving too fast, afraid of losing her, but also enamoured with her fearless quality. As much as Miyo is the driving force for the narrative, this is presented as Ko’s story, memory, and fantasy. As a result, other characters are reduced to their impulses, in contrast to his internal sentimental dialogue and idealized perception of the world, which are traits his friend Keiichi continuously points out in Ko. As if to remind us we’re in Ko’s memory, like someone in a dream telling you that you’re in a dream.
Miyo is envious of Ko’s love for his Kawasaki, but not just because it seemingly exceeds his love for her. She wants to love something that much, as well as to be loved that much, which encapsulates a misunderstood quality of jealousy. Miyo longs for Ko’s bike, Ko longs for Miyo’s island, but this longing is for each other as much as it is for self-discovery, with desires pushing and pulling against one another. They almost discuss their relationship and respective positions in life during a scene where they camp out while bike touring, but opt for making love in the tent instead — much more fun. The two ease their boredom in each other and ride with loose commitment to anything or anyone, listening to engines that purr the “sound of love” and breaking car rearview mirrors with no care for looking back, youthfully only thinking about hurtling forward.
But young love isn’t as simple as often depicted, something Obayashi translates beautifully, and their ties are complicated by the sway of life, feelings, time, and inevitable change. Their three days on her island fly by, as does the summer, and Ko laments that they’ll be old before they know it. Miyo and her island that summer are a fantasy remembered without imperfections, and then autumn drags on. Ko is back to his delivery job in Tokyo while Miyo only wants to advance licenses and ride, creating a rift between the two as he tries to keep her from her desires. Six months have passed and Miyo has disappeared back to her island with Ko’s Kawasaki, leaving a note saying that it feels like the wind has stopped.
Left empty and unlike himself, Ko’s friends urge him to follow his love, a feeling Ko has pushed away the entire film. Nothing seems to have changed from his last visit to her island, and they meld back into each other, as well as into their objects of desire and desire itself. All else, irrelevant. They ride together, splitting away on separate roads and then joining back, holding hands as they drive side by side — imitating the weaving in and out of their relationship, which is embodied in the road. They race to a drive-in when it begins to pour rain, and when Ko gets there first he panics while overhearing talk of a road accident. The wind immortalizes their story of young love, but mortality remains present. Loss is transmuted into something more optimistic, idealized through memory — expressing the great fortune of encountering something so precious, and how losing someone can feel like losing a part of yourself. This is at the heart of the sentimentality of the film, but the self is also augmented in this process, and transformation continues as we move forward and carry our experience with us.
With the double ending, their separate paths can be read as more literal, but in that moment on the road they are one — they are the wind — and even though this is Ko’s story, Miyo is Ko’s story, and it hasn’t ended as she remains with him in heart and mind. Rather than saying death is a metaphor for the end of a relationship (because that statement has issues as anyone who has experienced loss knows it is tremendously different than someone becoming absent from your life), I prefer to see the motorbike as a metaphor for life that rides the linearity of both the road and time. As the film is primarily concerned with the ambiguous intricacies of temporality, memory, relationships, and grief — death then becomes more a metaphor for the end of a specific time rather than the end to a life or a relationship.
His Motorbike, Her Island bursts with an eagerness for change and new experiences, but is constructed through sentimental reflection, demonstrating the way feelings reconstruct perceptions of time and memory, and immerses us in moments that have passed, freezing us there through images. The only Obayashi film that has received adequate attention is his debut feature, House (1977), but he was a prolific director with many other works to be discovered, living on through memory. New beginnings aren’t only found in the present and future — rest in peace, Obayashi.