Labyrinth of Cinema is truly a unique cinematic experience. But simply saying that does not even begin to get at the heart of what makes the film so special. Nobuhiko Ôbayashi’s final film—the director passed away earlier this year—it is a film which pays homage to cinema itself, exploring the power the cinematic medium has to enact change on both an individual and community level. It is a three-hour epic, dubbed during the opening titles as “a movie to explore cinematic literature.” And it is idiosyncratic to a degree where it is difficult to describe in a way that compliments the film. Not that the film is unworthy of compliment.
Ôbayashi, in his attempt to champion the power of cinema, breaks so many rules of cinema. Framed as a series of films within the film, characters move in and out of the movie screen at will. Occasionally, they will be seated in the audience of a war movie marathon, on the final day of a cinema’s business. But they also spend much of the time jumping in time through the power of the projector. Just as this framing forefronts the artifice of cinema itself, Ôbayashi also blatantly breaks rules of continuity, constantly reminding us of the existence of the camera.
By breaking all the rules, Ôbayashi frees himself to tell whatever story he wants to tell at any point in the film. He liberally moves his characters through time, ignoring any semblance of linearity for the sake of charting the history of Japan in wartime, giving his ensemble of characters dynamic individual journeys, and linking the two together for an ultimate moral that cinema has the power to spread peace.
This rule-breaking, non-linear style will certainly not be for everyone. Showing the seams of the film can come off as shoddy filmmaking (although, I would argue this is all an intentional part of Ôbayashi’s vision), and the length of the film is undoubtedly unwieldy. Not to mention that the historical reimagining of the frame narrative will likely read superficial to viewers who already know the history. The film does play on so many registers simultaneously that the experience can be dizzying. But this is also where the magic of the film stems. At times overblown and expressionistic, at others solemnly impressionistic, the film is tonally all over the map. But, somehow, miraculously, almost all of it feels right within its context. Perhaps the only part that is really off for me, tonally, is the scatological humor.
Cinema itself is the protagonist in Labyrinth of Cinema. The rest of the characters are tasked with protecting a girl whose name means “hope,” only to find themselves failing again and again. At the same time, the character of Cinema has the power to either destroy or save “hope,” and Cinema guides the ensemble to a place of understanding what that power means. Labyrinth of Cinema is about the beating heart of cinema, depicting it as a living being with the ability to touch the masses. Ôbayashi presents this magical connection between human and machine as a means of calling on people to protect—to protect cinema, and to protect humankind. For Ôbayashi, it seems, both can be protected by the same means. It is an idealistic anti-war message, but it is one presented with the passion and experimental formalism of a master. Ôbayashi’s swan song is an opera; perhaps the perfect cap to a prolific career.
Labyrinth of Cinema: B+