Labyrinth of Cinema: a Japanese War Flim
Japanese filmmaker Nobuhiko Obayashi was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2016, about three years before completing “Labyrinth of Cinema”, a trippy anti-war drama about Japanese war films, which Obayashi parodies and critiques in a feature film in his film. Or really, it’s a long film marathon in Obayashi’s film since “Labyrinth of Cinema” takes place during an evening war film festival organized by Setouchi Kinema, a small Hiroshima movie theater that puts on one last show before closing for good.
The plot is simple enough not to be relevant: three bright young things – Hosuke (Takahito Hosoyamada), a film historian who picks teeth, Mario (Takuro Atsuki), an enthusiastic film enthusiast, and Shigeru (Yoshihiko Hosoda), an aspiring bandit – chase Noriko (Rei Yoshida), a chaste 13-year-old teenager, after tumbling on the screen of Setouchi Kinema’s film, and are part of the unstable meta-narrative of a Obayashi. By the way: Obayashi died of lung cancer a year and a half ago. It can be said that his passed away weighed on him just by watching “Labyrinth of Cinema”, his last film, a three-hour testament and a dazzling curtain.
The Hiroshima setting of the film gives its personal nature since Hiroshima, Hiroshima is the hometown of director/co-writer/co-editor Obayashi and also the main location of some of his films, including the 1983 bubblegum-psych fantasy “The Girl Who Jumped through Time.”Obayashi is best known to American moviegoers as the director of the 1977 film “House, a sparkling horror fantasy that only became an international cause celebre in 2009 after its screening at the New York Asian Film Festival and a few other notable events. In “Labyrinth of Cinema”, Obayashi (along with his co-screenwriters Kazuya Konaka and Tadashi Naito) attempts to summarize what he has learned and tried to convey through cinema in a volatile self-review of films as soothing propaganda and machines of palliative empathy.
Obayashi uses green screen technology and inexpensive (but effective) computer graphics to dramatize folksy anecdotes about filmmakers like John Ford and Yasujiro Ozu, whether he’s oscillating between brutal and/or sentimental episodes about local war crimes and countercultural resistance. Sometimes Obayashi quotes poetry, especially by Chuya “Rimbaud of Japan” Nakahara. Sometimes a cartoon character or a samurai folk hero (Musashi Miyamoto?!) steals a scene or two. A few characters, like Fanta G (drummer Yukihiro Takahashi), a time-traveling author, talk about cinema as a beautiful essential lie that is first used as a balm and a distraction, and then also considered as a path to a brighter and still unimaginable future. You give Obayashi three hours of your time, and he will give you a bright headache.
You can look at “Labyrinth of Cinema” and wonder where all this came from. Like Obayashi’s recent War trilogy (2011-2017), and many of his previous feature films — as well as shorts and TV commercials — “Labyrinth of Cinema” constantly reminds you that it’s “A movie.”Before the beginning of Obayashi’s films, the words ”A movie” are usually presented on the screen in a frame within the frame of the picture. So, in “Labyrinth of Cinema” Obayashi’s characters are often framed by small circular frames in the camera frame. Sometimes these images turn over on the screen, so that a character who was on the left side of the screen is now upside down, or on the right, as if in conversation with himself, the viewer and any other person watching. There are also a surprising number of fart jokes and a few reminders from older Japanese movies like “I’m a cat”, “The Rickshaw man” and “Woman! It’s Like a Rose.””Labyrinth of Cinema” is a lot of film.
Obayashi’s various projects are immediately recognizable, given his usual combination of distrust and fascination with cinema as an expression of wish fulfillment and nostalgia. So it’s no surprise that his take on the past — and the filmy image — is never really soothing in “Labyrinth of Cinema.”Cheerfully naive characters get lost in the comforting and half-remembered memories of their companions, and do not cease to wonder why one thing inevitably leads to another, and another, and another. They float on the screen, insensitive to the laws of gravity or physics and unable to hide in any photo booth-quality backdrop that surrounds them. Obayashi’s characters all half know and half hope that they will live to see the next scene, so they take their time to learn how to ride the tidal wave of Japanese history according to Nobuhiko Obayashi.
“Labyrinth of Cinema” is extremely touching, often soothing, usually exhausting, and again, and again, and again. An indulgent walk of an innovative surrealist who was always sensitive and even wary of the impact of his own work — as a tool of advertising, political whitewashing and pure sentimental indoctrination. Coming out of the door, Nobuhiko Obayashi left us wondering how he went from “Home” to here without losing faith in humanity and his art; I don’t know, but “Labyrinth of Cinema” is still there anyway.