Saturday, July 25, 2020

Japan Cuts ’20: Labyrinth of Cinema

Usually, when characters fantastically enter classic cinema, it is to find comfort and sanctuary, as in The Purple Rose of Cairo, but nobody would want to magically travel inside a film like Hideo Sekigawa’s Hiroshima. Three Japanese film buffs find themselves in that position when they are sucked into a marathon screening of vintage Japanese WWII movies during Nobuhiko Obayashi’s final film, Labyrinth of Cinema, which screens as part of the Japan Society’s Japan Cuts Festival of New Japanese Film (all virtual this year).

Sadly, this is the final night of business for a quaint little neighborhood movie theater in Onomichi, Obayashi’s hometown and the setting of many of his favorite films. They are going out in high spirits with an all-night screening of WWII propaganda films (an odd choice, but its Obayashi’s world). Mario will miss the theaters because of Noriko, a young teen employee, as much as the movies themselves. When she gets vortexed into a jazzy musical (the innocuous kind allowed by Imperial censors), it is all well and fine, but when the films start depicting combat, Mario goes in after her. Reluctantly, Hosuke (a diligent film student) and Shigeru (an aspiring yakuza) go in with him.

Despite the wartime themes and the shifts from the Edo era to the Great Pacific War, the three audience members-turned-participants navigate the film landscape fairly easily. Yet, they are always powerless to save Noriko in her various film guises. However, the stakes really go up in the film’s final hour (out of three), when the three film-lovers befriend a travelling drama troupe visiting Hiroshima in early August, 1945. Now they want to save all their new friends from what they know is coming.

is probably not Obayashi’s best film, but it might be the ultimate Obayashi film. Here he combines the breakneck pacing and surreal wtf-ness of House with the wistful nostalgia of his coming-of-age films, like I Are You, You Am Me and Bound for the Fields, the Mountains, and the Seacoast. The general anti-war sentiments and specific anger regarding Imperial militarism he expressed in Hanagatami (and the documentary Seijo Story) is here in spades, but he also evokes memories of his “school girl” films, like The Little Girl Who Conquered Time.

The deliberately fake-looking aesthetic (reflecting the 1940s era) takes some getting used to and the tripped out interstellar prologue will be a stumbling block for some. However, Obayashi builds to a real smack-down of an emotional payoff. Granted, it takes three hours to get there, but the film is never boring along the way. In fact, it is one weird episode after another, including a meeting with Yasujiro Ozu, discussing his wartime compromises.

No matter how adventurous they might be, viewers need to fortify themselves before starting
Labyrinth, because it is a three-hour visual barrage. It is also truly distinctive auteurist filmmaking. In Seijo Story, Obayashi seemed to be constantly editing this film—and now we can see why it was such a painstaking process, but his efforts with cinematographer-co-editor Hisaki Sanbongi bear considerable fruit. Every character call-back and each narrative parallel reverberates with significance (and there are many).

Labyrinth is not really such a great showcase for thesps. Instead, it is more of a challenge to hold on for dear life. Nevertheless, as Mario and Shigeru, Takura Atsuki and Yoshihiko Hosoda really come into their own as full-fledged, flawed and conflicted tragic heroes during the final Hiroshima sequence and the heartbreaking Okinawa episode that precedes it. Likewise, Rei Yoshida brings poignant depth to Noriko, instead of merely allowing her to become a symbol of innocence lost (which she still is).

Don’t be embarrassed if you need to take a break from
Labyrinth, but stay with it. It looks like a kitchen sink movie, but Obayashi ultimately brings it all together (except maybe the fish in space). Regardless, it is the sort of fearlessly bold statement most filmmakers do not have the guts to attempt—and Obayashi did it while under medical treatment for cancer. Very highly recommended, Labyrinth of Cinema screens virtually through July 30th, as part of the 2020 Japan Cuts.