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▶︎ Labyrinth of Cinema is streaming on Mubi.
Obayashi Nobuhiko’s three-hour swansong is a pop-art paean to pacifism and unity in the form of an exploration of Japanese film history and, in particular, its many depictions of armed conflict. Never knowingly realist, Obayashi (1938-2020) delivers an extended fantasia spiked with motifs and ideas from his own long filmography, including time-travel, young sweethearts in peril, interactions between humans, fictional characters and ghosts, a tribute to hand-drawn animation and pastiches of silent-movie grammar. The pace is unrelentingly frenetic until the film reaches the days before the nuclear devastation of Hiroshima in 1945 and slows down to focus on the director Maruyama Sadao, dying of pleurisy, and an imaginary plan to save his itinerant theatre troupe from the blast.
The sheer density of the references to history and cinema – and the way they are playfully jumbled together – makes the film pretty daunting to viewers unfamiliar with Japanese specifics, though Obayashi smartly anchors the ensemble in quotations from the poet Nakahara Chuya (1907-37, a translator of Rimbaud), describing his poems as both attuned to the zeitgeist of the 30s and presciently relevant to our own neo-militarist times.
Labyrinth of Cinema (the Japanese title Umibe no Eigakan means simply ‘Movie Theatre on the Seashore’) is notionally set in Onomichi (where Obayashi was born), near Hiroshima, and its central conceit is that the last cinema in town is closing down. The Setouchi Kinema is a modest venue as picture-palaces go, but boasts a small, in-house orchestra to play along with silent movies. The place turns out to be imbued with the lingering spirit of the militarist 30s and 40s, thanks to the films screened in its final all-nighter.
Obayashi uses this set-up as a pretext to explore aspects of both Japanese history and Japanese cinema: he develops the Sherlock Jr. idea of having ‘real’ people from the cinema dream their way into the action on screen, in this case a cute schoolgirl called Noriko, who comes to represent innocent victimhood, and three young men (one sweet-natured, one bookish, one trying to be a tough guy) who follow her into the dream-action and attempt to rescue her from dangers. The rescue missions traverse the decades from the 1860s to the 1940s and go well until they reach the impasse of the Hiroshima bomb, but we learn in the closing scenes that Noriko’s spirit lives on in the person of the elderly box-office clerk who calls herself Pika (‘Flash’) after the blinding light which announced the detonation of the bomb.
Obayashi’s account of Japanese film history is sentimentally skewed to much-loved figures like the early samurai star Bando Tsumasaburo and the pre-war comedian Enoken, to often-filmed episodes like famous duels fought by the 17th-century ronin-philosopher Miyamoto Musashi, and to an imagined conversation about their regrets between the directors Ozu Yasujiro and Yamanaka Sadao, who really were friends, both posted to China in the late-30s military draft (and both played here by present-day indie directors, Tezuka Macoto and Inudo Isshin respectively). There’s no obvious reference to such major figures as Mizoguchi or Kurosawa, but the basic concept of hapless adolescents confronted by ‘authority’ may owe a debt to Oshima’s Three Resurrected Drunkards (1968), in which three high-schoolers are mistaken for the Korean illegal immigrants who have stolen their clothes. The starriest of many guest-appearance cameos is by the Yellow Magic Orchestra vocalist and drummer Takahashi Yukihiro, who plays a space-time voyager in the prologue and epilogue; he says Japan and Hawaii will someday collide.
The film’s Japanese subtitle Kinema no Tamatebako means ‘Cinema’s Treasure Box’ – but with the implication that Pandora’s Box-like surprises may lurk within. Obayashi includes two scandalous episodes rarely mentioned in Japanese movies: the doomed defence of Wakamatsu Castle by brigades of women and children in 1868 and the massacre of native Okinawans by Japanese troops in 1945. And he turns didactic when he tells viewers that the Japanese government has lied to them. Mostly, though, he revels in cinema as a box of tricks with nods to the likes of Frank Capra and Stanley Kubrick. His editing of his own film includes some of the fastest and most disorienting cutting ever seen in a commercial feature. The tone overall is upbeat and positive.
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