FANTASIA FILM FESTIVAL 2020: LABYRINTH OF CINEMA (2019)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Takuro Atsuki, Rei Yoshida, Yukihiro Takahashi, Takato Hosoyamada, Yoshihiko Hosoda,

PLOT: Japanese teenagers find themselves thrown into the movies screening at a cinema on the last night before it closes.

Still from Labyrinth of Cinema (2019)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA LIST: Nobuhiko Obayashi’s final movie, completed only months before his death, is an exuberant, monumental, poetic and surreal ode to the power of cinema.

COMMENTS: I’d advise letting yourself get lost inside Nobuhiko Obayashi‘s Labyrinth of Cinema. Due to the way it hops around between eras and genres, the story may be easier to follow for those familiar with pre-WWII Japanese cinema; but given that the movie begins by introducing one Fanta G, a time-traveler who arrives in modern-day Onomichi, Japan, in a spaceship with goldfish floating inside it, it’s fair to say that narrative logic is not uppermost on Obayashi’s mind. This is a movie with atmosphere to absorb and imagery to intoxicate.

“Movies are a cutting edge time machine,” Fanta G tells us. “You’ll experience time lags in this movie.” You have been fairly warned. After he lands his spacecraft in the harbor and makes his way to Onomichi’s only cinema for the all-night war movie marathon, we’re introduced to the rest of the main characters. Noriko is a 13-year old schoolgirl from a nearby island who almost always appears onscreen bathed in an idyllic blue light. Teenage film buff “Mario Baba” is smitten with her; he sits in the audience with two companions, a nerdy aspiring historian and the son of a monk who intends to become a yakuza. As the first feature begins, Noriko climbs onstage and begins tap dancing in front of the screen; when she hops into the film itself, no one in the audience bats an eye. The three boys soon find themselves mysteriously absorbed into the screen, as well. But the movie keeps changing, and the trio find themselves involved in musicals, samurai films, and wartime adventures, playing out various scenarios, but always pursuing Noriko, who serves both as damsel in distress and an ever-receding symbol of the epiphanic power of cinema itself. The skipping-through-film-history format plays out like a live action variation on Millennium Actress, but with an even more dislocated plot.

Most long movies are slow-paced, languorously stretching out to fill the available time, but Labyrinth of Cinema jets like a rocket through its three-hour tour of Japanese cinema. This makes it exhilarating, but also a little exhausting. Besides the constantly shifting plots—the teenage trio find themselves in new roles, facing new adversaries, every five minutes or so—Obayashi constantly switches styles. He recreates traditional genres, but also throws his own immersion-breaking visual trickery onscreen: vertical wipes, big blocks of primary color, actors enclosed in circular irises that resemble the Japanese flag, blazing computer-generated sunsets, and sidebar text commenting on the action (when one character first appears, he shows us a legend cheekily explaining “we don’t know his name yet”). Along the way we get plenty of the surreal touches we’d expect from the mind that gave us Hausu, including a piano tune played by bullets, and an emotional death scene with a woman who just happens to be sporting a Hitler mustache. Many such surprises lurk inside this maze of movies.

The pace slows a bit after intermission as the story makes its way towards its climax at Hiroshima. A strong and consistently humanist anti-war theme runs through the entire film, but the main focus is always on the cinematic form itself. Labyrinth of Cinema is an ode to the ways in which movies both distort and inform reality; it’s Obayashi‘s love letter to the art to which he devoted his life, shown as much from the perspective of a fan as of a craftsman. While doubtlessly the epic could have been edited down for clarity—and might have been, had Obayashi survived to tinker with it further—much of the movie’s ramshackle extravagance would have been lost. I’m not sure we would want to lose a single second of Obayashi’s last gift to the world.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…bursting with energy, passion and dreamlike invention… the border between reality and fantasy dissolves into a colorful alternative universe that is uniquely Obayashi’s.”–Mark Schilling, Japan Times (contemporaneous)

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