The final film of Japanese director Nobuhiko Ôbayashi is meant to be a sweeping, playful three hour survey of Japanese culture, history and militarism as seen through its movies — a “Labyrinth of Cinema.”
He cast actors as local film fans in the last picture show at the Setouchi Kinema in Onomichi, the director’s hometown. He then pulls them into recreations of genre pictures of various eras, silents and musicals to war films, Samurai movies and the like.
He’s teaching a lesson, through music, dance, history, poetry and constant green-screen “action,” about conflict and how it has scarred his country and the rest of the world.
The obvious, modest-budget green screen effects lend a certain whimsy to his film, the last one he completed before dying in April of 2020. His movies were rarely exported, but cineastes might have run across the rock’n roll centered “The Rocking Horseman” or “The Last Snow,” “House” or “Turning Point.”
The locus of his “Labyrinth” is the poetry of Chūya Nakahara, a fatalistic Dadaist who died just before the world war that Ôbayashi says he saw coming.
“They call it modernization, Nakahara wrote and various actors recite in “Labyrinth.” “I call it barbarization.”
A teenage girl (Rei Yoshida) sings folk ballads, tap dances with a chorus line and guides us through the country’s history, with the help of the jaded sage Fanta G (Yukihiro Takahashi). Sucked up onto the screen before this “last night” war movie marathon at a Japanese cinema, she is joined on screen by a film nerd, a history buff, the smitten Mario (Takuro Atsuki, and dude, she’s 13) and a Yakuza-wannabe (Yoshihiko Hosoda).
They reenact famous battles from the centuries of Samurai wars that led to the 19th century Japanese civil war, when the day of the Samurai ended. The metaphor Ôbayashi hammers home, in not-very-subtle-ways, is that humans love wars, but the time for that should be passing, too.
It may seem cloying for a teen to ask “Why do people kill each other in war?” But when was the last time you considered that simple question?
The film wanders into theater and cinema history in an effort to show how Japan was indoctrinated with “self sacrifice” and “militarism” propaganda, and how that militarism led to Japan’s ultimate destruction.
We see ways the people were “lied to,” enslaved by a system which committed atrocities with impunity once the war Japan started unfolded. Ôbayashi studiously avoids dwelling on Japan’s crimes against “foreign” humanity. No sense rattling the country that banned films on The Rape of Nanking, POW abuse, Korean enslavement and depredations visited on China in “The Last Emperor.” Instead, we see the military raping and murdering Okinawans “to save food,” and the brainwashing it took for people to consider that a willing “sacrifice.”
But Ôbayashi committed cardinal sins of indulgence and unapproachability in getting his magnum opus on the screen.
Three hours of green-screen “play” lends the whole affair the air of a lark, and make it wearying and tedious to watch. He’s reaching for serious social commentary and satire, peppering his script with references to the Boshin War and how the country might have been different if this figure or that one had survived and had more influence.
A poem Nakahara wrote about the Mukden Incident, the Japanese provocation that in essence started World War II, is quoted.
“Dark clouds gather behind humanity,” he wrote. “Hardly anyone notices it. If you saw it you’d feel as sick as I do.”
But that’s as deep as the filmmaker gets into Japan’s responsibility and moral failure. Instead, he focuses on the acting company that wound up, by the worst stroke of luck, at Hiroshima in August of 1945, a doomed troupe of artists, featuring Keiko Sonoi, killed within view of what came to be known as “The Atomic Bomb Dome.”
That provides a poignant climax to a movie that frankly would have been better showing these actors dropping into the actual movies about earlier moments in history, cinematic art such as “The Rickshaw Man,” discussed but not sampled.
His purpose isn’t literal film history or Japanese history. But if you’re making the opening argument “cinema is the greatest time machine,” seeing a bunch of players dancing in a fake musical on a fake silver screen isn’t making your case for you.
Ôbayashi has a character make the claim that international cinema turned provincial Japan covetous of its neighbors’ land and resources, which would have been a great thing to illustrate with clips from such films. even if that’s classic Japanese WWII denialism.
The exteriors, hapless modern film fans trapped in this Boshin War battle or that Samurai slice-up, are more impressive and hint at a better movie that more money might have provided. Bodyless arms grasping through walls at prisoners of the state and similarly surreal moments are few and far between, despite the film’s air of video unreality.
“Labyrinth of Cinema” thus becomes an ambitious, over-reaching film without the budget, polish or will to achieve its aims, three hours of “nice try” for a filmmaker who won’t get a chance to try again.
MPA Rating: unrated, stylized violence, sex, stylized nudity,
Cast: Rei Yoshida, Yukihiro Takahashi, Takako Tokiwa, Yoshihiko Hosada, Takuro Atsuki
Credits: Scripted and directed by Nobuhiko Ôbayashi. A Mubi release.
Running time: 2:59