The ne plus ultra of Japanese maverick Nobuhiko Obayashi’s work as a surrealist and staunch anti-war advocate, the cult “House” director’s dizzying and frequently dazzling final feature is told through the adventures of four young people who are magically transported into the movies themselves. Opening with a riotous bombardment of sound and image that risks confusing and losing some viewers even as it sends others into rapturous delight, “Labyrinth of Cinema” then makes sense of the chaos and emerges as a touching plea for peace and an exuberant celebration of the artifice and transformative power of cinema.
It’s something of a miracle that “Labyrinth of Cinema” exists. After being diagnosed with terminal lung cancer in 2016, Obayashi completed “Hanagatami” (2017), the final chapter in his anti-war trilogy that included “Casting Blossoms to the Sky” (2012) and “Seven Weeks” (2014). Defying a prognosis that gave him just months to live, Obayashi then co-wrote, directed and co-edited this three-hour feature while undergoing treatment. He survived to see its world premiere at the 2019 Tokyo Film Festival before passing away on April 10, 2020, aged 82. Ironically, the film was originally scheduled for domestic theatrical release on that day, before the pandemic forced a postponement.
Obayashi’s final statement leaps out of the blocks with an energy and urgency that never diminishes. The first thing viewers hear is a group of enthusiastic voice-over narrators reading credits such as production company names as they appear on screen. “Our wish for world peace resulted in this passionate movie,” they explain. In the first of countless zany tangents, non sequiturs and stream-of-consciousness flurries to come, these narrators even send a cheery hello to “our dear movie friend Hinton Battle,” who wasn’t able to appear owing to scheduling conflicts in the U.S.
Obayashi sets the scene at Setouchi Kinema, an old movie theater in his coastal hometown Onomichi in Hiroshima prefecture. The picture palace has decided to close its doors forever and is bowing out with an all-night marathon of Japanese war movies. The program begins with tales from the Boshin civil war of 1868-69, followed by Russo-Japanese and Sino-Japanese conflicts, before moving into the tragic events of the Second World War.
As a ferocious storm batters the building, a bumper crowd settles in for the show. In the audience are three young men — Hosuke (Takahito Hosoyamada), a serious film historian; Shigeru (Yoshihiko Hosoda), a monk’s son who wants to be a yakuza; and Mario Baba (Takuro Atsuki), a wholesome, bright-eyed film buff — who are whisked inside the movies and sent hurtling through Japanese history. Joining them is Noriko (Rei Yoshida, debuting), a teenage schoolgirl who says she knows nothing about life or war and comes to the movies to learn.
In a film packed with autobiographical references and echoes of Obayashi’s previous work, Noriko brings to mind the spirited young heroines of his time-travel hit “The Little Girl Who Conquered Time” (1983) and teen body-swap comedy winner “I Are You, You Am Me” (1982). It’s a giddy ride for Noriko and the boys as they zap around from samurai dramas into life-and-death combat during the invasion of Manchuria before landing in Okinawa and finally arriving in Hiroshima.
More than simply onlookers from another time, the quartet arrive at each destination in correct period costumes with makeup and hair to match, as if destiny has drafted them into active duty as performing artists and observers. As they bounce in and out of movies, each character reflects on what they have seen and heard as witnesses to the devastating impact of war. Hosuke, who’s forever scribbling in his notebook, offers an intellectual perspective, while Shigeru takes the cynical view. Mario, who has fallen in love with Noriko, sees things through romantic, hopeful eyes.
The odd one out is Noriko. Unlike her fellow time- and film-travelers, she assumes multiple roles and inhabits many different dimensions in a cinematic landscape that seems to be dreaming itself up and adding new layers however and whenever it feels the need. Every sight and sound here is open to any number of interpretations, including the idea that Noriko is a symbol of Japanese innocence, suffering and hope. Not long after we first meet Noriko, she appears as Zashikiwarashi, a spirit creature associated with fortune. At another early point, she bounces into frame in a re-creation of the color musicals made in post-war Japan as it sought to recover from humiliation and devastation. “Movies are dreams, dreams are movies, it’s a wonderful world,” she sings, before a close-up of her beaming smile becomes jammed in the Setouchi Kinema projector and catches fire — just as Hiroshima will in later sequences featuring Noriko in yet another guise.
Watching over everything is an alien named Fanta G, played with beatnik-cool looks and style by legendary Japanese musician and occasional actor Yukihiro Takahashi. First seen in a spaceship with giant goldfish floating around him, the laid-back visitor tells us, “movies are a cutting-edge time machine.” After taking his seat in the theater, Fanta G pops up frequently to instruct viewers about Japanese history and cinema, offering thoughts such as, “tap dance is the base of human dignity.”
Obayashi leaves almost no idea unexplored and no statement left unsaid in this joyride into his mind, heart and soul. With voice-over, text information and frequent quotes from poets including Chuya Nakahara (the “Japanese Rimbaud” who wrote “they call it modernization, I call it barbarization” when observing Japan’s military and industrial rise 100 years ago), Obayashi pleads with the movie audience in the film and those watching for real to not be passive observers when watching war movies for entertainment. Within the “lie” of movies re-creating warfare also lies the historical truth of armed conflict and the very real pain and loss it has caused.
Obayashi wants us to be inspired by the artificiality of cinema and to use it to actively work for a future without war. He emphasizes this point by filming a great deal of his re-created war movies — and just about everything else for that matter — with green screen work and some deliberately slap-dash special effects that sometimes give the feel of a student video project from the early 1980s. At other times, he pulls out all the stops with magnificently photographed (by Hisaki Sanbongi) romantic interludes and sequences set in wartime bordellos that are executed with all the saturated color and sweaty atmosphere of entries at the rougher end of the Pinky Violence exploitation genre.
Obayashi’s idealistic belief in the power of cinema includes references to the wartime work and lives of Japanese masters such as Yasujiro Ozu (Makoto Tezuka) and Sadao Yamanaka (Isshin Inudo), who died tragically young in 1938 after being drafted to fight in Manchuria. Frank Capra gets a glowing mention, and Obayashi gives himself a lovely little cameo as the great U.S. filmmaker John Ford. Though some of these detours don’t end up contributing very much to the overall picture, they remain true to Obayashi’s grand plan of not excluding anything that may be important to him during this inspired outpouring.
Though never less than stimulating, “Labyrinth of Cinema” may be too fractured in its storytelling and too overloaded with information to fully engage audiences unfamiliar with Japanese history prior to 1940. No one needs a history degree to approach this film, but basic knowledge is a distinct advantage. After a frantic 90 minutes, Obayashi slows the pace ever so slightly and brings many of the film’s seemingly random elements into focus as the story moves into events in Okinawa and Hiroshima during the closing stages of the Second World War.
The shocking sacrifice of civilians and soldiers in the island paradise of Okinawa is superbly depicted. In deeply moving scenes, Mario and his friends meet Sadao Maruyama (Shunsuke Kubozuka), leader of the famous Sakura Theater Troupe, which was obliterated in the Hiroshima A-bomb blast. We are used to seeing movies in which characters from the future attempt to change events in the past. Rarely has this scenario delivered the kind of emotional impact as it does when Mario, Hosuke and Shigeru desperately try to prevent Maruyama and his players from meeting their terrible fate.
But nothing can stop Obayashi from bringing things to a magical and musical end, with a little inspiration from Stanley Kubrick assisting his unrestrained and unashamedly idealistic imagination.