Japanese filmmaker Ôbayashi Nobuhiko is probably best known to North American audiences for House, a nerve-wracking 1977 ghost story that stands out as a prime example of what came to be known as J-Horror. But in Labyrinth of Cinema — Ôbayashi’s final film, released in Japan about the same time as his death in 2020 — he has more on his mind than just scaring teenagers. The prolific helmer of family dramas, youth-market romances and war stories evidently wanted to leave behind an explicit message to audiences around the world: “It’s time to review history so we can build a better future.”
Easier said than done. But Labyrinth of Cinema can never be accused of taking the easy way out. It’s a three-hour dramatized essay on war and peace, an ambitious combination of live action, animation and musical numbers built around a group of contemporary characters at a small theater mentally inserting themselves into some old war movies. Into that fantasy framework director/producer/co-writer/co-film-editor Ôbayashi crams a stupefyingly kinetic account of how Japan’s centuries-old tradition of constant warfare has affected the ordinary people called upon to do the fighting and dying.
Among the moviegoers at the Setouchi Kinema in Onomichi (the filmmaker’s hometown) on its last night of business are a “film history maniac,” a yakuza gangster ducking his enemies, a goofy film buff named Mario Baba (as in Italian horror maestro Mario Bava) and the film’s central character, Noriko (played by Yoshida Rei), a 13-year-old girl who magicks into a dizzying array of other characters, in the minds of the audience, as the movie zips along.
Noriko is the designated victim of this panoramic tale, but her hardships are never cheap nor without meaning. Ôbayashi’s screenplay — written in collaboration with Konaka Kazuya and Naitô Tadashi — starts out as a helter-skelter grab bag of popular movie styles and themes but soon connects all that energy to a close and often grisly examination of the horrors of war, culminating with the August 6, 1945 genbaku (atomic bomb) attack on the city of Hiroshima that brought World War II to a devastating close.
The film casts a wide net. It’s alternately whimsical, kawai (cute, Japanese style), utterly serious, sentimental, occasionally maudlin, brutal, and yet despite everything, eternally sanguine about human conflict, love and the importance of the arts in celebrating humanity. It comes to one grim conclusion: “The country deceived its people,” says one of the young soldiers. But the dream world of motion pictures offers more than mindless escape: “It’s as if movies demand that I do something with my life.”
There’s a lot to escape from. Flashing by on the big screen are a yakuza gang battle, samurai swordplay from the Shogunate-era Civil War, the revenge of a female Chinese rape victim of the 1930s, the legend of dueling hero Miyamoto Musashi, a lurid ballet class/brothel brouhaha, horrifying scenes from wartime Manchuria, the exploits of a women’s brigade of joshitai warriors and the spectacle of a group of WWII soldiers swimming in a sea of money. Throughout, lonely Noriko dreams of peace, no matter how elusive it is.
The more one knows about Japanese history, the better. Dozens of jokes and bits of wordplay get lost in translation in the high-speed shuffle, but there’s still plenty for movie-savvy international audiences to fasten on. Like the imitation “John Ford” shooting a documentary in Hiroshima — played by Ôbayashi himself — “Ford” looks and sounds like Hollywood filmmaker Samuel Fuller. Other “foreign” artists such as Arthur Rimbaud and “Franz Kapra” get the same treatment.
Diagnosed with terminal cancer, Ôbayashi nevertheless made Labyrinth of Cinema while receiving medical care. Frantic and occasionally messy as it is in adding up his country’s often shameful past, the director’s pacifist intent shines out brightly. Americans may wish for a similar indictment of our own imperial misdeeds, but compared to the Japanese it’s obvious we haven’t suffered enough yet to deserve it.
In theaters November 4.