'Labyrinth of Cinema': Film Review | Tokyo 2019

Courtesy of Labyrinth of Cinema -FILM PARTNERS/PSC 2020/Tokyo International Film Festival
Can films stop war?

Three modern-day characters jump into a series of war films to experience the vicarious thrill of combat in Nobuhiko Obayashi’s opus.

More uneven but ultimately more effective than filmmaker Nobuhiko Obayashi’s previous anti-war film Hanagatami, Labyrinth of Cinema had its world premiere as part of the Tokyo International Film Festival’s tribute to the director. An 81-year-old veteran of more than 40 films, Obayashi had been fighting a serious illness during the production of Labyrinth and the earlier pic. Both works foreground his preoccupation with the horrors of war and its destruction of the purity of youth. In the latest effort, the filmmaker expresses his hope that cinema has the power to influence people’s minds on the subject and perhaps change the violent course of history.

In this three-hour-long, exuberantly shot (by cinematographer Hisaki Sanbongi) and imaginatively edited film, the full force of Obayashi’s preference for the experimental makes itself felt. Its visual panache is achieved by casually switching between color and black-and-white images, live action and CGI, and shuffling a variety of old-time movies and genres. This dizzying technique apart, though, the rapid-fire dash through history will divide itself into two parts for non-Japanese audiences, whose knowledge probably doesn’t extend to the Boshin War and the second Sino-Japanese conflict. They occupy the first hour and a half of narration.

Only when Obayashi (who wrote, directed, produced and edited) reaches the battle of Okinawa and the explosion of the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima are international audiences likely to become engrossed in the story. This second half also slows down the pace enough to identify and empathize with the characters, who go from being stick figures mouthing glib lines to classic emotional beings.

Underlining the autobiographical nature of the tale is its setting in the charming port town of Onomichi, where the director was born. The only film theater in town is closing down forever, and the aged manager and the blind woman who owns the place have decided to stage an all-night screening session dedicated to Japanese war films. As luck would have it, it’s raining heavily and, other entertainments being cancelled, the house is packed. Noriko (Rai Yoshida), a schoolgirl on a bike who helps around the theater, appears like a ray of sunshine — and a salute to Obayashi’s many movies about schoolgirls (from The House on down). Suddenly, the audience is startled to see Noriko onscreen. She has magically entered an old musical and is tap dancing to jazz with a chorus line.

Three young friends also enter the screen: the good-hearted Morio Baba (Takuro Atsuki) who falls for Noriko, the bespectacled, would-be historian Hosuke (Takahito Hosoyamada) and Shigeru (Yosihiko Hosoda), an aspiring yakuza with slicked-back hair. In each film they interact in different ways with the characters.

In a collage of recreated scenes, edited with the rhythm of a music video, we see armed samurai battling in feudal Japan, then a flash-forward to patriotic songs and militaristic youth celebrating victory at Pearl Harbor. In 1868, a civil war gives rise to more fighting; somewhere, a women’s and children’s brigade is massacred. Frank Capra and Ozu are reverentially mentioned. The hop, skip and jump quality of this section may be intended to reflect the chaos of history, but it’s certainly hard to follow, and attention wanes.

The pic finally comes into focus in the Okinawa episode during World War II. Obayashi sets up an idyllic tropical island scene in pre-war 1925, where love blooms, then unveils the tragedy that befalls his characters in 1941, powerfully bringing home the senselessness of war.

Even more arresting is a final extended sequence in which Noriko and the trio of young heroes, armed with their knowledge of the future, jump into a film set during the days leading up to Aug. 6, 1945, when America dropped the first A-bomb on Hiroshima. They meet a famous company of theater actors who died in the explosion and try to alter their fate. The moment of the blast — described as a blinding flash of light followed, for those who survived it, by a deafening boom — is eerie and frightening, one of the most unforgettable images in all Obayashi’s work.

Production company: Producers System Co.
Cast: Takuro Atsuki, Takahito Hosoyamada, Yoshihiko Hosoda, Rei Yoshida, Riko Narumi, Hirona Yamazaki, Takako Tokiwa

Director-screenwriter-editor-producer: Nobuhiko Obayashi
Executive producer: Kazuyoshi Okuyama
Director of photography: Hisaki Sanbongi
Venue: Tokyo International Film Festival (Japan Now)

179 minutes