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“Labyrinth Of Cinema” colorfully goofs on war and cinematic convention

The final epic feature of Japanese director Nobuhiko Obayashi (of “House” fame) kicks off UW Cinematheque’s spring 2022 calendar on January 21.

The final epic feature of Japanese director Nobuhiko Obayashi (of “House” fame) kicks off UW Cinematheque’s spring 2022 calendar on January 21.

Header Image: A group of musicians play in the orchestra pit in front of a stage and a movie screen that is showing four women engaged in a dance routine. An oversized, superimposed image of the orchestra conductor obscures the left-hand side of the screen.

Editor’s Note: UW Cinematheque is continuing in-person screenings this January, as they follow current UW-Madison safety policies.

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It begins with a World War II-era Japanese military police officer saluting the projection screen that will be showing war movies all night before a seaside theater closes in Onomichi, Hiroshima, Japan. Then it begins again with a mysterious space traveler Fanta G surrounded by giant koi fish, who explains that movies are still the most reliable form of time travel. Then it begins once more on Noriko, an adolescent girl heading to the same seaside theater, where she meets three young men that represent a sampling of different factions of film enthusiasts—Mario Baba, “film buff,” presumably named for the prolific genre-hopping Italian B-Movie director Mario Bava; Hosuke Otari, “film history maniac,” who takes a more academic approach to film history; and Shigeru Dan, “debt collector,” a religiously conflicted fledgling Yakuza who takes his social cues from onscreen examples. It begins with—wait a minute. Is the show now starting in earnest?

All these different paths lead into the Labyrinth Of Cinema (2019), screening Friday, January 21,at 7 p.m. in 4070 Vilas Hall as it rings in the start of UW Cinematheque’s spring 2022 calendar. This final film from Japanese director Nobuhiko Obayashi, best known in the US for the horror oddity House (1977), directed a total of 49 feature films over his extensive career (the majority of which have never made it Stateside). Obayashi passed away in April of 2020, after a cancer diagnosis in 2016. In the interim he directed two films: Hanagatami (2017), based on an unproduced script he had written in the ’70s which he intended to be his first film, and Labyrinth Of Cinema, a love letter to the movies and an expression of hope for the next generation by a dying but optimistic man.

The three audience surrogates (Mario, Hosuke, Shigeru) promptly follow Noriko into the movie screen and travel across the history of war in Japan. Each time they encounter Noriko and try to save her from danger. The premise here might recall Last Action Hero (1993) or The Purple Rose Of Cairo (1985) with a hint of Goodbye, Dragon Inn (2003), but the closest analogue in scope and style might actually be Tom Tykwer and the Wachowskis’ Cloud Atlas (2012).

Labyrinth Of Cinema has style in abundance. Obayashi updates his largely analog visual repertoire to the digital era, making abundant use of greenscreen and digital effects. (In a Blu-ray featurette, one of the effects supervisors recalls being amused by Obayashi’s instructions to make sure the end result “looks fake.”) The aesthetic could simultaneously be compared to Peter Greenaway’s The Pillow Book (1996), Tim & Eric Awesome Show Great Job!, the 21st century experimental essay films of Jean-Luc Godard, Georges Méliès shorts, Ryan Trecartin videos, and a Vaporwave album cover. Or maybe it’s just an extension of House a little over 40 years later.

Key to understanding Obayashi is abandoning the outdated pretense that films must resemble reality and rather favor a philosophy that’s closer to quantum truth—films create reality. “I’ll go in the movie to know who I am,” Noriko says shortly before jumping through the screen, which is treated as a perfectly natural occurrence that doesn’t require some contrived explanation like Last Action Hero‘s magical golden ticket. The audience travels with Mario, Hosuke, and Shigeru through a free-associative maze of historical eras and forms, including chanbara (or sword-fighting), melodrama, political intrigue, comedy, tragedy, cartoon, sci-fi, musical, and even poetry on screen being read aloud. The result is complex but at the same time completely unsubtle, because the where and when is often directly stated, and most characters get an anime-style freeze-frame intro.

The director himself gets two cameos, one as legendary director John Ford, to whom he bears only passing resemblance, and one as a mysterious stranger who states the message of the film. In these appearances, Obayashi plainly shows the audience his blueprints, and the fourth wall is the most load-bearing. If Labyrinth Of Cinema proves anything, it’s that confronting painful memories doesn’t have to be dreary; it can be colorful and fun. Obayashi has stated in an interview that he wanted to create a comedy about war to show its absurdity. Humanity collectively made up the rules of war, so why can’t we all collectively change them? The rules should serve the people, whether they be social, legal, or cinematic.

An elderly director can make a three-hour meditation on war, but it doesn’t have to take the route of Come And See (1985) or Apocalypse Now (1979). Rather, it can focus on the power of youth to change the future, and can include a quick silent movie-style intermission intertitle about halfway through. Pain can lead to growth on an individual and collective scale, but we, the audience, have to reach for it. We can’t fall into a pattern that revels in the pain or ignores it. That could mean pointing out the artificiality of something, as Labyrinth Of Cinema does, that is nevertheless keenly felt.

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