Labyrinth of Cinema (2019) review [IFFR 2020]

Introduction

That Obayashi Nobuhiko, an avant-garde master-director known for his wild and singular surrealist style, is still alive is nothing but a miracle. Diagnosed with stage four cancer and given only three months to live in 2017, Obayashi, especially known for his cult-hit House (1977), did not only complete his passion project (and third part of the thematic trilogy of modern anti-war films) Hanagatami (2017), but went on to make a whole new anti-war narrative Labyrinth of Cinema (2019).

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Review

Thirteen year old Noriko Habara (Rei Yoshida) always goes to the cinema at the shore in Onomichi. The reason why she keeps on coming to Setouchi Kinema is because she wants to learn through movies. The question she aims to answer through cinema is who she is as well as what war is.

But, sadly, the cinema is set to close. To ‘celebrate’ the final day of the cinema, one final night of cinematic entertainment, an exploration Japanese war-movies, is programmed by Kinema G. (-). In the audience are film buff Mario Baba (Takuro Atsuki) and Hosuke Otori (Takahito Hosoyamada), a film history maniac. During the beginning minutes of the screening, a yakuza-wannabe Shigure (Yoshihiko Hosoda), who was seeking shelter from the rain, enters this seaside cinema.

A flash (pika) and a don (boom) later, the three guys are suddenly transported into the movie screening at the cinema. When Mario calls Noriko, she asks him to help her. Driven by Mario’s desire to help her and to protect her, the three guys, the one more willing than the other, embark on an adventure through the cinematic exploration of Japan’s war history.

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Labyrinth of Cinema does not hide what it wants to be: a passionate plea for a future of world peace and love (General-note 1). It is a movie against the “dark clouds [still] gather[ed] behind humanity” (Nakahara Chuya) and against the violent barbarization causes by the perverting desire for power. Obayashi’s latest should, furthermore, be read as criticism of the typical Japanese mentality of conformity over logic and of the workings of the Japanese government (before, during, and after the war).

In order to communicate his wish, Obayashi’s visual exploration of Japanese war history explores a wide range of historical violent events, violent events between men (and women) in war-context as well as violent events against women (and children) (Narra-note 1). Obayashi evokes events like the Boshin war, the violent turmoil that propelled Japan into the Meij period, the Second Sino-Japanese War, the war-atrocities in the Pacific war and the atom-bomb (Narra-note 2). Moreover, Labyrinth of Cinema investigates how violence affected people like Sakamoto Ryoma, Miyamoto Musashi and his beloved Otsu, Japanese filmmakers like Sadao Yamanaka and Yasujiro Ozu, and actors like Sadao Maruyama, Enoken, and Akio Sawamura.

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Labyrinth of Cinema is not only a dense presentation of Japanese military history and historical facts about cinema, but also a visual exploration of different genres/styles of Japanese cinema, like the post-war American-styled musicals and the silent chanbara-movie (Narra-note 3, Narra-note 4). Even so, it would be more accurate to say that Labyrinth of cinema offers a feverish exploration of Japanese war history as visualized through the lens of historical cinematic styles.

How does Obayashi expresses his plea for a different future? Mainly by exploring the problematic position of the audience. Even though Mario Baba, Hosuke Otori and Shigure find themselves imprisoned within the movies, they remain part of the audience as well – something emphasized by the repetition of statements like “We’re the audience” or “I’m in the audience”. While these vocalizations underline, at a certain level, a refusal to participate in violence in the film-dimension, these statements also underline the ease by which the spectator, while being invested in a cinematographical narrative, can retain his/her distance. So while film has the power to confront us with many things – showing us truth through the frame of a lie – the very fact that movies remain movies enable the spectator to neutralize this confrontation and avoid taking any form of subjective responsibility.

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But Obayashi also criticizes the position of the audience in a different way. By inserting a shot or two of an enjoying audience within the scene where Shigure is being beaten – two scenes that happen, in fact, at the same time, Obayashi does not only show that audiences enjoy (cinematographic) violence, but also that we actively enjoy from a passive position – “war movies are entertainment” (Cine-note 1). And in another sequence, a sequence given cohesion via the repetition of the signifier ‘Ee ja nai ka’, Obayashi subtly evokes another position, a position of not-caring about or not-wanting to have anything to do with war and the deaths war-violence results in.

Ultimately, Obayashi’s Labyrinth of Cinema shows that movies can overcome the flight of the subject, can deny him the position of passive enjoyment, and force him to work-through the narrative. Not only does Obayashi represents this possibility with the shift our three male heroes make from a passive to active position, but Obayashi’s latest realizes this possibility: Obayashi’s Labyrinth of Cinema overcomes this flight of the subject and puts the subject-spectator to work. Obayashi uncovers that it is not movies as such that can change the future, but the subjects watching these movies. Cinema can only alter the future by activating and change the subjectivity of those spectators that understand that the power of cinema goes beyond the element of entertainment – that cinema, for example, can always be a transformative experience (Narra-note 5).

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With Labyrinth of Cinema Obayashi offers, once again, a very montage-like cinematographical composition. This montage-quality is not only caused by Nobuhiko’s compositional play with colour, but also due to the fact that Obayashi, without limiting himself artistically, freely plays with visual elements in his shot-compositions. Shot-compositions are, in general, created by pasting various visual elements together. Due to the latter, one might feel that many of Obayashi’s compositions are marked by a certain level of nonsensicality, but such belief would ignore the fact that most visual elements are linked by association or associative repetition.

It might surprise some, but Obayashi, with his extravagant but sharp editing skills, has composed a chaotic, energetic and often humorous adventure through Japanese cinema history that grips the spectator’s attention from the first minute until the very last. Yes, his reliance on association – Obayashi being less bothered to provide traditional narrative ‘cohesion’ – may confuse spectators at times, but his feverish concatenation of quirky compositions seduce and engage the spectator. The lack of cohesion or, positively formulated, the compositional wildness is also instrumental in echoing the very chaos that marked Japan’s violent times.

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Luckily, Obayashi does not forget to insert more straight-forward composed sequences in his otherwise feverish composition. These moments of cinematographical rest do not only allow the spectator to regain his composure, but also enables Obayashi to insert hopeful and ever touching moments of romance into his narrative. But, irrespective of how hopeful these moments may feel, all are eventually violated by the destructive impact of war violence. At every point in the narrative, violence is ready to turn these hopeful moments of romance into moments of heartfelt drama and confronting injustice.

The tensive and destructive relation between violence and romance/love is mainly explored through the relation between Mario and Noriko, whose name is associated with hope. But from the beginning the spectator senses that Noriko’s presence is different from Mario’s, due to the fact that Noriko is introduced via shots with a blue overlay or is presented as blue within the otherwise normally coloured narrative space (Cine-note 2). This peculiar choice of colouring has no other effect than cutting her off from the reality of others in general and the reality of Mario in particular.

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The two questions Noriko asks – What is war? and Who am I? – are more related than appears at first glance. The opening of the narrative already implies that the answer for the first question provides the answer for the other (Narra-note 6 (spoiler)). The connection between her existence and war-violence is also the reason why Noriko’s request to help her and to protect her remains unfulfilled (Narra-note 7). Obayashi shows, by repeating the ‘impossibility’ of romance multiple times in his narrative, how the desire for power that leads to war destroys the connecting power of love. This repetition, a repetition of the impossibility to save Noriko throughout Japan’s war history, turns Obayashi’s Labyrinth of Cinema into a tragic and moving anti-war love-story. In the repetition of tragedy one can discerns Obayashi’s plea to utilize the art of cinema to connect people and to keep cinema radically anti-war, i.e. away from exalting war and violence.

Cinematographical quirkiness is also evident in the way the cut or shot-transitions are handled. Not only are shot-transitions often emphasized by mechanical sounds or are cuts applied in rapid succession, Nobuhiko plays with the cut in order to empower more lighthearted elements (Cine-note 3).

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 Other elements that stand out in Labyrinth of Cinema is the abundance of narrating and explanatory voices as well as the use of on-screen text – the title cards. From the beginning till the very end of the narrative, the cinematographical composition is accompanied by a ‘concatenation of narrating voices’ and contextualizing on-screen sentences (Cine-note 4). Even if some voices only vocalize a few words, Obayashi’s use of narrating voices and title cards further reveals emphasis on speech and the signifier (Cine-note 5). The importance of the signifier is also emphasized by the theatricality that marks the acting performances. Besides emphasizing the signifier, this theatricality also infuses some lightheartedness in our male heroes’ wild adventure (Cine-note 6). But this infusion of lightheartedness does not diminish the impact of Obayashi’s magnum opus.

But there’s more. Obayashi’s characters are, quite often, subtly split between what we will call the in-narrative space and the out-narrative space. His characters address as much the other characters within the filmic space as well as us, the audience watching Labyrinth of Cinema. This element, once again, reveals that Nobuhiko’s latest is a film explicitly addressed to the spectator, a film meant to ‘educate’ him in his vision and impart him his passionate wish for the future.

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Labyrinth of Cinema is Obayashi’s magnum opus. It is a gift to the spectator, crafted in full consciousness it may be his final gift to give. It is a feverish presentation of facts about cinema, a fierce explication of his pacifistic philosophy, and, above all, an honest plea for love and a future without war and atom bombs – after a pika (flash) then a don (boom). Obayashi’s Labyrinth of Cinema is not only the most important movie made by Obayashi but also the most important Japanese movie of the last decade.

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Notes

General-note 1: Even if Obayashi is physically present in Labyrinth of Cinema in various forms, like as a clay figure marionette, as drag, and even as John Ford, the characters that truly represent Obayashi in his narrative are Fanta G. (Yukihiro Takahashi) and Kinema G. 

Narra-note 1: Violence against Okinawans is also touched upon. By contrasting the statement “This is for your country. You’re serving the emperor” with the image of innocent Okinawan civilians waiting to be shot, Obayashi has created an ‘unreal’ sequence that will long linger in the mind of the spectator.

Narra-note 2: Through the yakuza-wannabe, the monk’s son, a subtle association is made between samurai and yakuza. People knowledgeable about Japan will know that yakuza consider themselves the modern-day samurai.

Narra-note 3: Obayashi often condenses various historical facts within one shot or a few shots. At one point, he evokes in one shot the start of the second world war for Japan – the victory at Pearl Harbor – as well as the Ee ja nai ka movement that took place at the end of the Edo period.

Narra-note 4: While the focus is on Japanese cinema, references to Hollywood directors like John Ford and Franz Capra are also made.

Obayashi, furthermore, provides an insight about how film projection worked in the past as well as informs the spectator about the dangers that characterized this old method.

Narra-note 5: It is therefore not surprising that Fanta G., near the end of the narrative, directly addresses the spectator in order to confront him with his own power to make a future where war has no place.     

Narra-note 6: The most impactful signifier repetition concerns ‘pikadon’, a reference to the atomic bomb. ‘Pika’ represents the flash and the ‘don’ the sound of the explosion.

Notice that this signifier is already evoked at the very beginning of the narrative in reference to Noriko. The burning of the film-frame featuring Noriko is also a subtle reference to her fate.

Narra-note 7: The repetition of the failure to save Noriko in whatever form underlines that the past cannot be changed.

Cine-note 1: This composition can, of course, be read in a more straightforward way, but the way Obayashi utilizes the cut in the composition urges us to read his narrative in an associative way.

Cine-note 2: After Noriko enters the movies, this peculiar colouring becomes less common. These blue-overlayed shots return, for instance, when flash-back shots of Noriko are inserted into the composition.

One notable exception to this rule is the depiction of the silent chanbara movie, which is also framed with the same blue overlay.

Cine-note 3. When Fanta G. is narrating the history of humanity, his sudden enunciation about the yumminess of his futomaki is emphasized by a sudden cut.

Cine-note 4: With contextualizing on-screen sentences we mean that the on-screen sentences give context on what is happening.

Cine-note 5: The repeated references to not use English loanwords is not only a reference to Japanese imperialism but also a cheek-in-the-tongue corroboration of the importance of the signifier in Obayashi’s narrative.

Cine-note 6: Another source of lightheartedness is to be situated in the way our three male characters experience their adventure through filmic styles and Japanese war history, in the way they, fully conscious of being captured within the film-dimension, provide commentary on the cinematographical style as well as on the music that accompanies the scene-composition.

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