Nobuhiko Ōbayashi's final film is the most epic of spectacles, a meditation on cinema that's by turns baffling, exciting and moving
Two days after he dropped Blackstar, David Bowie died. This oblique, baroque, and doom-laden album had confounded the first-responders, but upon his passing the mission became clear: this was an intergalactic artist grappling with the final frontier. Nobuhiko Ōbayashi’s Labyrinth of Cinema, which screened at festivals in 2019, plays a similar trick, washing up on European shores a year after the Japanese master’s death from lung cancer in 2020.
Ōbayashi possessed a singular vision that, like Wes Anderson or Alfred Hitchcock, resulted in an immediately recognisable, artificial playground that was entirely his own. From House to Hanagatami, his films reflect a legacy of Japanese trauma in the aftermath of the atom bomb. With ferocity, the features of his later years increased in length and ambition. The three-hour-long Labyrinth of Cinema is perhaps the peak of this project, an agitated, operatic vision that counts on you to neither second guess the plot contrivances, nor the huge, talking goldfish floating through space.
“It's time to review history, so we can have a better future,” the opening narration informs us. And so, like Sherlock Jr., the spectral Noriko (Rei Yoshida) and three male companions leap into the screen of a movie theatre on the brink of closure, and experience the breadth of 20th century Japan through the action, violence, and melodrama of cinema.
The first, frantic hour brings the battle to the viewer’s lap. Amidst Tex Avery-style action, bullets dodge the heroes, who feel safe in the knowledge that they’re in a film, while repeated shots, scenes and phrases are utilised as a different kind of weapon. “Cinema is a dream,” we're told, again and again. This is a genuine labyrinth, and it’s easy to get lost in every corner. But Ōbayashi moves at a clip, prioritising splendour and excitement above all else. By refracting film history, the director surveys Japan itself, sweeping across the brutality of feudal era to the war in China, all the way to the “Original Sin” of Hiroshima.
Later on, Ōbayashi slows down, allowing for more graceful moments of romance and recollection. In one incredibly moving sequence, one of Noriko’s goober companions, Mario (Takuro Atsuki), recalls a childhood love affair with cinema, to the extent that he takes a literal bath with a reel of celluloid, melting off the images. Drawing them back on, the cartoons eventually leap off the screen, like Jeff Daniels in The Purple Rose of Cairo. Labyrinth of Cinema shames the non-specific and unremembered nostalgia of movies peddled by the likes of Mank, La La Land, and other self-congratulatory Hollywood tales. While Fincher’s film used digital to badly approximate the magic of cinema, Ōbayashi embraces digital to find new textures, bringing us closer to the feeling of discovery audiences might have felt at the very dawn of cinema.
This innovation is present, too, in the use of computer-generated visual effects that provide a complete foundation for the film’s unique world. Rendering his environments with blocky polygons, Ōbayashi pastes sections of characters’ bodies around the screen, imitating collage – a technique that proves most effective during a chase sequence in which arms reach out to grab the characters. He uses the coldness of the computer to make something homemade and personal, proving this most epic of spectacles doesn’t need an Avatar-level budget to transport the viewer to far off-places.
This dense and metaphysical film is definitely not willing to meet the viewer halfway, though even the less enthralled are unlikely to complain as they find themselves lost in its vivid labyrinth. Right up to the end, Ōbayashi has too much fun with the toolbox of cinema for that, and even finds the time to throw in a couple of sly jokes about streaming. Watch it at home, certainly, but consider this warning: it's likely to make you miss the big screen more than ever.
Labyrinth of Cinema is now streaming on MUBI.Where to watch