Labyrinth of Cinema
t.l. Il labirinto del cinema
海辺の映画館 キネマの玉手箱 (Umibe no Eigakan: Kinema no Tamatebako)
Japan, 2019, 180’, Japanese
Directed by: Obayashi Nobuhiko
Script: Obayashi Nobuhiko, Naito Tadashi, Konaka Kazuya
Photography (color): Sanbongi Hisaki
Editing: Obayashi Nobuhiko, Sanbongi Hisaki
Music: Yamashita Kosuke
Producer: Obayashi Kyoko
Executive Producer: Okuyama Kazuyoshi
Production Company: “Labyrinth of Cinema” Production Committee
Cast: Asano Tadanobu, Atsuki Takuro, Hosoda Yoshihiko, Hosoyamada Takahito, Mitsushima Shinnosuke, Narumi Riko
Date of First Release in Territory: November 1st, 2019
Premiere status: Italian Premiere
Obayashi Nobuhiko, who died on April 10 of this year at age 82, finished two films after receiving a diagnosis of terminal lung cancer in 2016. One, Hanagatami, a drama about the lives and loves of young people in Kyushu in the late 1930s, was released in 2017. The second, Labyrinth of Cinema, premiered at the 2019 Tokyo International Film Festival, with a wheel-chair-bound Obayashi in attendance.
Far from being a last feeble effort by a dying man, Labyrinth of Cinema is bursting with energy, passion and freestyle invention. And though it conveys a strong anti-war message, it is anything but moralizing or preachy. The tone is that of cheeky black comedy, minus cynicism and pessimism, while the border between reality and fantasy dissolves into a colorful alternative universe that is uniquely Obayashi.
As an in-demand maker of TV commercials, starting in the 1960s, Obayashi became a master at holding audience attention from moment to moment, though in Labyrinth of Cinema he does it less with celebrities (such Charles Bronson in a well-remembered men’s toiletries ad), more with his unfettered visual imagination and abundant storytelling gifts. How can you not pay attention when an avuncular “guide” named Fanta G (YMO drummer and vocalist, Takahashi Yukihiro) is discoursing on the history of Japan’s many wars as giant multicolored fish swim around him in a time machine?
So though the film’s running time is nearly three hours (broken, thankfully, by an intermission), it clips along entertainingly, if seriously. And though much of its history may be unfamiliar to non-natives, the film presents it with artful compression and vivid detail.
Taking the poetry of Nakahara Chuya (1907-1937) – “Japan’s Rimbaud” – as a framing device, and with Fanta G providing commentary, the film delves into Japan’s violent past, from the country’s troubled opening to the West in the mid-19th Century to the bombing of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945.
The protagonists are three guys who attend the last-ever screening of an old seaside theater in Onomichi – Obayashi’s real-life hometown. They are Mario (Atsuki Takuro), a good-hearted movie buff, Hosuke (Hosoyamada Takahito), a nerdy intellectual, and Shigeru (Hosoda Yoshihiko), a volatile gangster.
Through the magic of cinema (and with a nod to Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr.), they find themselves not only watching the theater’s all-night program of “war films,” but also taking part in the on-screen action. There is also Noriko (Yoshida Rei), a sweet-faced teenaged girl who shows up at the theater saying she wants to “know more through movies” and ends up in the war films as well, taking on different guises – and falling victim again and again.
So the film is something of a historical highlight reel. Among their many adventures, our heroes become swept up in the internal power struggles of the Shinsengumi, an elite corps of pro-Shogunate samurai, fight in Manchuria against the Chinese with the desperate and dodgy Lt. Sako (Asano Tadanobu) and finally travel with a theater troupe led by legendary actor Maruyama Sadao (Kubozuka Shunsuke) in the waning days of World War 2. Their final destination: Hiroshima.
Given the film’s high death toll and its acerbic running commentary on war’s waste and folly, it seems to be heading toward a climax both despairing and grim. Instead it ends on a note more positive, if not falsely happy. Memory, it tells us, can keep the reality of war’s horrors alive – and movies are bearers of memory as well as stirrers of dreams. The little seaside theater may close, but Obayashi’s last testament will linger on.
Obayashi Nobuhiko (Onomichi, 1938) has been in love with movies since a child, when he drew his own pictures on scraps of film from a toy projector. In the late 50s and 60s, Obayashi helped to create the independent film scene before such a name had even been conceived. Since 1964, he directed thousands of commercials, featuring such actors as Catherine Deneuve, Kirk Douglas, and Charles Bronson. After House (1977), the hit fantasy/horror film for which he’s most known abroad, he went on creating a string of most personal feature films. In 2016 Obayashi was a guest of Udine FEFF. He died in Tokyo on April 10, 2020.
1977 – House
1981 – School in the Crosshairs
1982 – Transfer Student
1983 – The Little Girl Who Conquered Time
1986 – The Drifting Classroom
1989 – Beijing Watermelon
1992 – The Rocking Horsemen
1994 – Turning Point
2014 – Hanagatami
2019 – Labyrinth of Cinema