The first and only Nobuhiko Obayashi film I’d seen up until now was his cult classic Hausu (1977). It was about a decade or so ago and the details are a bit fuzzy now. What I do remember is being utterly bewildered by the film. It was billed as a horror movie but it was like no horror movie or even just a movie I’d ever seen. It was ridiculous, confounding, and completely original. And I didn’t quite know what to make of it. Now, when I decided to watch this unique filmmaker’s Labyrinth of Cinema, I was somewhat better prepared. The perplexity was not so pronounced this time and was instead replaced by decided awe. True to its name, the film is labyrinthine.
It’s an extremely ambitious film and one that demands a certain amount of patience (not simply because of its 3-hour runtime). But if you stick with it, it’s equally rewarding. Obayashi takes us on a journey through Japanese history, specifically that of war and cinema. His standin and the main narrator of the film, Fanta G, is a time traveller who takes us to present-day Onomichi, where the last cinema hall is playing one final night of war movies before closing its doors for good.
Among the varied audience are three young men — cinephile Mario, film history buff Hosuke, and Shigeru, the debt-collecting son of a monk who wants to be a yakuza — who suddenly find themselves inside the films being shown and thus becoming part of history. Also caught inside the movies is mysterious 13-yearold girl Noriko, whom the three men try and fail to protect multiple times. As these characters jump from movie to movie, we learn about the various conflicts Japan has seen over the years and come to realise that the history of mankind is nothing but “wars, genocide and annihilation.” We also learn about the history of cinema how it progressed from silent movies to talkies, the way film projection works, and so on.
The first 40-odd minutes of Labyrinth of Cinema are quite chaotic and it’s hard to see what Obayashi is trying to do. But we realise this is on purpose when Fanta G says, “History is chaotic as you can see.” After giving us a taste for the confusion of war, Obayashi slows things down a bit and starts shepherding us toward the inevitable end point of this war history WWII and Hiroshima. We then begin to get a sense of the misery and tragedy that war engenders. Obayashi consciously gives the film an artificial sheen with lo-fi effects and abrupt, unusual cuts, making us constantly aware that we are watching a movie. And yet, Labyrinth of Cinema succeeds in making us sympathise with its protagonists.
Moments such as the one where a small hand reaches out through a wall and the first time Noriko dies are impossible to forget. Aside from showing us the ugliness of war, Obayashi also takes on cinema itself. The of t - repeated phrase “There’s truth in a lie” strikes at the heart of what cinema is. And it is perhaps to underline this that Obayashi gives the film that artificiality. Cinema is make-believe, but it is also based on reality. Cinema can lay bare the truths of the world, as this one does, but it is also entertainment.
When the night’s screening begins, a post-WWII musical is shown first, making Hosuke grumble that it is “vacuous entertainment, not a war movie.” But, as a character later points out, war movies are entertainment too. Still later, Mario, who up until then had been enjoying their stint inside the movies, says, “I don’t think we should enjoy war.” It is a direct attack on movies that glorify war. Labyrinth of Cinema is Nobuhiko Obayashi’s final film, made after he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. He likely knew it would be his last work.
And what a way to end a career it is a celebration of cinema and a hope that it will help create a better future, one sans wars. Incidentally, this happens to be my last contribution to this column, and I couldn’t have hoped for a better note to end it on. To echo Mario, “I will defend the freedom and adventure of movies!” And as Obayashi says, our conflictfilled past cannot be reversed, but each of us has the power to make a future where war has no place in our everyday lives.
A fortnightly column on what’s good in the vast ocean of content in the streaming platforms around you.
Film: Labyrinth of Cinema Streaming on: MUBI