It can feel to me at times as if movies about movies are the best… movies. Sometimes you need to stretch that; Once Upon a Time in the West isn’t explicitly about films, but is in conversation with the legacy of the western genre and America’s mythic old West via screen depiction. Yet, sometimes, The Last Picture Show will come along and be about (so much more than just a movie theater, obviously) the ways in which films can play a pivotal, healing role in our lives.
Labyrinth of Cinema
Director: Nobuhiko Obayashi
Release Date: November 1, 2019 (Tokyo International Film Festival), October 20, 2021 (USA, limited)
The late Japanese iconoclast Nobuhiko Obayashi, with his epic final film Labyrinth of Cinema, seems to have been a promoter and genuine believer in the power film has to shape the world. Though Labyrinth may not be the most consistent or formally-excellent three hours you’ll spend on a movie, the passion that exudes from Obayashi’s final film imbues a playfulness as well as melancholy unlike any other. A smorgasbord of cheeky visuals and endless self-reflection and commentary, Labyrinth of Cinema is a swan song that pleas for peace from an iconic filmmaker.
Ushered into our story by a time-and-space-traveling observer (Yukihiro Takahashi), we come upon the coastal city of Onomichi, Obayashi’s hometown, where the doors of its only movie theater are soon closing for good. Going out with a marathon of Japanese war films, stormy weather strikes the theater, warping several of its audience members into the films, serving as an avenue into Japanese history and militarism through a cinematic lens.
From the outset, Labyrinth of Cinema is a ballast of bright colors and playful graphic design, with titles narrated to reflect the filmmakers’ intentions and a general sense of goofiness from the not-excellent special effects that comprise the spaceship of our time-traveling guide, Fanta-G (yep!). Much of Labyrinth of Cinema appears to be shot with green screens and clear back-projection, which makes for a silly and light atmosphere that will contrast starkly with many of the scenes of war atrocities and grave wartime trauma and violence the film depicts. At best, the collegiate-level production value is endearing. At worst, it feels budgetary and beneath Obayashi’s subject matter, perhaps. Yet it should be evident in the stills accompanying this review that there are some incredibly striking images in Labyrinth, Obayashi’s keen sense of deep saturation and pop art-like juxtaposition unmistakable at a glance.
No stranger to mixed media, back to his psychedelic ’70s horror classic House to manga adaptation The Drifting Classroom ’80s, all the way up to his final films of staunch anti-war sentiment and humanism, Obayashi is a visual experimenter in the tradition of Japanese pop auteurs like Seijun Suzuki and Ishiro Honda, though it’s Obayashi’s unwavering heart and sense of love that perhaps elevates his films to something wholly unique. Which is to say that from a formal standpoint, Labyrinth of Cinema can sometimes feel exhausting, almost, in how loosely the cheap VFX hold some scenes together, but it’s all done with the spirit and optimism of a young man with a message to deliver. This from Obayashi, who was 81 years old at the time of Labyrinth‘s Tokyo premiere.
The cloud that hangs over Labyrinth of Cinema, of course, is that director Obayashi was battling lung cancer in his final years, and made the film under these harsh physical ailments. Obayashi passed away in April 2020 following the film’s festival premieres, but is so clearly made as an epitaph by an artist who wants nothing more than to share his kindness and sense of humanity with the world.
It can be tricky to separate art from the artist, something we usually do when a filmmaker has done something ghastly outside of production, and we want to annotate the work with an asterisk, reminding us of the possibly-tainted message it bears. Yet Labyrinth of Cinema is so infused with life by a man who was literally dying that it produces a unique end result that demands context to truly appreciate. Yet one can’t issue homework with a film. In this sense, Labyrinth of Cinema as a singular work exists in a three-hour zone of examining Japanese politics and jingoism leading up to the Second World War by way of tongue-in-cheek science-fantasy romp. The three young men warped into the films exhibit archetypes like wannabe-yakuza and movie historian, brought face-to-face with the horrors of war captured on the celluloid that spins tirelessly in the projection booth. Obayashi’s narrative of examining the past through cinema is in itself meta-textual. After all, we’re watching a movie about people watching movies.
It’s Obayashi’s idea of what he seems to have wanted out of Labyrinth of Cinema that intrigues and endears me to it most; here is a man whose life has been dedicated to the movies, literally to the end, and believed so strongly in their power to change the world. That’s heartwarming, straight up. The film itself I found to be at times a bit droning, and its commitment to its slapdash presentation sometimes simply visually unappealing. Which sounds harsh, but I mean it only as an examination of where Obayishi’s staunch auteurism and vision simply didn’t work for me. Labyrinth of Cinema accomplishes its almost lecture-like narrative successfully, Fanta-G doting on the audience as both a professor to educate us but also a student who’s reached his thesis and submits it confidently. It can just be a bit of a middling ride at times but, like some of the greatest works of literature, it’s worth pushing through to reach the end.