Labyrinth of Cinema (Japan, 2019) [Reel Asian 2020]

For many film fans, Nobuhiko Obayashi will forever be remembered for his 1977 cult favourite House. Whilst House is perhaps him most famous feature, films such as The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (1983), Sada (1998) and his adaptation of The Drifting Classroom (1987) means he holds a special place in the hearts of many Japanese cinema viewers.  Labyrinth of Cinema was the 82-year-old Obayashi’s final feature film and he sadly died during the final stages of the production. With a running time of three hours, many films of this length would struggle to keep the audience’s attention but Obayashi anti-war extravaganza manages this via a mixture of brilliant visuals and anarchic storytelling.

The film offers a highly unusual beginning as the film’s ‘narrator’ Fanta G (played with anarchic glee by YMO drummer Yukihiro Takahashi) sits in a time machine circling earth as giant goldfish swim around him. Fanta G then brings us to the final screening taking place in an older seaside movie theatre (set in Onomichi which was actually Obyashi’s hometown). During a retrospective of war films, four audience members are suddenly transported into a series of cinematic montages and experiences. We have the beautiful and innocent Noriko (Rei Yoshida), her beau Morio (Takuro Atsuki), the young historian Hosuke (Yakahito Hosoyamada), and the aspiring gangster Shigeru (Yoshihiko Hosoda). The film moves from the various battles, suicides, assassinations and executions of feudal and Meiji Japan toward the military might of the Imperial Japanese War machine. Frank Capra and Yasujiro Ozu appear at one point and the film is full of images and narratives that echo the history of Japanese war films – from the colonial cinema of Manei and the works of Yoshiko Yamaguchi, to the latter-day explorations of Japans wartime past. Noriko (another homage to Ozu via the use of his famous character’s name), fulfils the role seen in many wartime dramas for any young and beautiful female protagonist. We see her die multiple times as the men strive (and fail), to try to protect her in the various battles and skirmishes. Finally, the group meet Sadao Maruyama (played by Shunsuke Kubozuka) who leads a famous company of theatre actors who, we learn, are headed for Hiroshima to perform. As the date of August 6th 1945 draws nearer, the little band try to change the narrative and save the lives of the theatre troupe but, as the audience is always aware, fate will not be kind.

Obayashi’s previous anti-war film Hanagatami (2017), failed to engage the audience but Labyrinth of Cinema, presenting itself as an alternative black comedy rather than a serious piece of art, offers a remarkable take on the war film. Intercutting between Noriko and her friends and Fanta G, the film moves between animation, live action and endlessly explores and dissolves the borders between reality and fantasy. The film is a marvelous cacophony of colour, sound and images. We move from black and white to colour and the cinematography by Hisako Sanbongi, who had also worked with Obayashi on Hanagatami, is the most remarkable part of the film. The physicality of celluloid is both celebrated and lamented as we see a nitrate-based film vision of Noriko consumed by flames and we see film as the living and breathing method to both memorialise and interrogate the past.

For those not familiar with Japanese history, the first part of the film may be harder to follow and engage with, but as we see people celebrating the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbour events are immediately more recognisable. The film is a remarkably joyous as well as thought-provoking anarchic trip into Japanese past tragedies and is a fitting ending to a remarkable career.

Labyrinth of Cinema is streaming as part of the Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival from November 12-19.