The Labyrinth of Cinema (Review)

Nobody makes films like Nobuhiko Ôbayashi does, and with his tragic death in 2020, we are never going to have films like them again. Luckily, we have Labyrinth of Cinema; after giving us a final filmic statement in 2017 with the wonderful Hanagatami, Ôbayashi lived long enough to make one more final film. This film is a more concrete and beautiful swansong, a cousin to Hanagatami for sure but also very much its own thing – in so many ways.

To describe Labyrinth of Cinema is to do it a disservice – it is something you just have to experience. It is three hours of persistent imagination and experimentation that manages to skate between absurdity and profundity while never diminishing either side. However, one must try to put the thing into words. We begin in space, as a kindly old man in his rocket sets the stage for the film’s narrative. Superimposed fish swim before him as he muses on the nature of cinema and the state of humanity. From here, we make our way to a small town just outside of Hiroshima, where Ôbayashi is from. The weather has turned wild and the storm forces the local population into a small cinema where they are showing a succession of Japanese war films. We have a film enthusiast, a critic and a wannabe Yakuza – they all find themselves in the cinema (our spaceman is there too) – and then they find themselves (Sherlock Jr. style) in the actual films. From here, they travel through time and cinema history as Ôbayashi takes us through a treatise on Japanese film and the sins of Imperial Japan (focusing primarily on WW2). This is the foundation for his philosophy on life, cinema and how the two combine. This is a a film that pushes for peace, reflection and a better world. It is stunningly beautiful.

None of this is done at all conventionally. The film fluidly matches its style to different cinematic eras, commenting on them as it does this, while also feeling completely unique. In earlier films, most notably his 1977 masterpiece House (also known as Hausu), Ôbayashi improvises with cinematic technique. These punk and post-modern inflections continue but now Ôbayashi has access to so much more. He is a co-writer, co-editor and producer on the film – as well as playing a couple of parts – and every inch feels hewn from his soul. Here, Ôbayashi has modern editing techniques at his fingertips and the widened scope of contemporary visual effects. He throws everything at the film but in a way that maintains a unified style. The spirit is anarchic but it is the perfect match for his love letter to, and stern critique of, cinema. This film speaks fluent cinema and it speaks almost uniquely about cinema – as it intertwines national history with cinematic history.

This is a film with missteps and rough edges, but this does not stop it from being a masterpiece. If anything, the flaws are additive (aside from a few rough moments vis-à-vis representation). Some elements not quite working just add to the sense that Ôbayashi is going for everything. This is unleashed creativity and the shonkiness of the whole thing is part of its unrivalled charm. This is one of the most personal films I’ve ever seen, a film about cinema but also so deeply about its creator. It is oddly reminiscent of Kieślowski’s masterpiece Camera Buff, in that both explore the artist alongside the artform and manage to balance appreciation for cinema as well as providing a stern critique of how it can be misused. In Labyrinth of Cinema, Ôbayashi explores Japan and its sinful history. In doing so, he presents how its cinema was involved in this, using the idea of the war film to present how our culture glorifies war – and how it has been built around war in general. This is a deeply anti-war film and the ways in which it is such are fascinating. We jump between stylistic homages and actual documentary style descriptions of the culture of the time. This is a history lesson but it is focused, as the movie makes clear later, on shaping the future not on changing the past.

This theme is also deeply linked to mortality. This is Ôbayashi’s final film and he knew it was his final film. His imminent death hangs heavy over it, which is tragic but also an inherent part of the text. The film dives into his past, somewhat, as well as the past of Japan and of cinema. We build towards the atomic bomb being dropped on Hiroshima, an event Ôbayashi survived due to being outside of the city at the time. This event echoes throughout his films, often dealt with directly. This film deals with it better than any other and the sequence ties so beautifully to the themes. For obvious reasons, Ôbayashi is obsessed with this event – hence its reoccurrence in his cinema. Our characters here attend the event with knowledge of what will happen and try to change the course of history. It is worth pointing out, again, that – at this stage – our characters exist, in fiction, inside a film. From this perspective we see how cinema wishes to grapple with the past – the film even points towards works that aim to mythologise or rewrite history – but the film instead focuses on how films must shape the future. By looking to the past we send a message forward, which is what the film is doing at every point.

It does this in such bold and arresting ways. The imagery is confronting yet also very playful. It feels like the brilliant mind of this man has been unleashed onto our screens, we are just there to appreciate his gift. But his gift is a message, it is a direction for how to continue. Ôbayashi doesn’t want to just stop, he doesn’t want to be all about himself – even when the film reflects him so overtly – he wants cinema to be something more. His films re-edit and play with reality; Ôbayashi here reveals this to be a metaphor for his ideology as a whole – in which he believes films can play a part in how we alter society going forward. We need to revise; we need to change; we need to be playful; we need to be imaginative. We also need to be anarchic and bold, looking back but looking back in a constructive way. This improvisational feeling cinema is revolutionary cinema, as Ôbayashi trawl’s through the medium’s past to construct a future. This film is not an ending, even if it is a goodbye, it is an ode to the future. An ode to a better future (away from wars and road traffic accidents just like Gamera would have wanted).

Why this works so well is that this, while feeling so personal, does feel like a shared work. The film is full of homage and learning. There are sequences that evoke Ishii, that directly reference Ozu and that fill us in on lesser known Japanese films. It shows cinema as a communal experience that so many contribute to, something that builds up our cultural understanding of ourselves and the world. This means that the film works on an academic level, as you can play spot the inspiration or the allusion. But this is never dry intellectualism – or self indulgent. I’ve seen the film, and Ôbayashi’s filmmaking in general, compared to Godard. It is a comparison I understand but one that does him a disservice. His filmmaking is unique and his philosophies are so much more humanist. If he has a parallel it lies in the Czech New Wave rather than the French, the psychedelic experimentations linking to the work of Věra Chytilová (Dasies specifically). Though, this film also feels closely aligned with the work of Nagisa Ōshima, in terms of its bold anti-traditionalist stances, by way of Seijun Suzuki. Or maybe Yoshimitsu Banno’s Godzilla vs. Hedorah is the perfect companion, in its mix of high-camp and polemics – all punctuated with psychedelic aesthetics. However, when the list of inspirations gets this long, the conclusion is clear: Ôbayashi is a truly unique filmmaker. His films are so utterly original, so inspiring and so genuinely important. There was nobody else like him and there will be nobody else like him. Cinema has lost one of its most special voices but at least we have his parting message, and what a parting message it is.

But, Ôbayashi ends his film by looking towards the next generation – to a bolder society that will push further than we have ever gone, standing on the shoulders of the past so that sins are not repeated. So, here’s to the future. Here’s to the bolder filmmakers to come; here’s to the better times and here is to cinema. We emerge from the Labyrinth emboldened, exhausted and overjoyed – though marked by sadness – ready to face the future.

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