“Movies are dreams, dreams are movies.” In that case, Labyrinth of Cinema is one hell of a dream — a three-hour war epic of astonishing ambition that journeys from Japan’s feudal days into the future, stretching the limits of celluloid as it pushes viewers to confront atrocities and fantasies in equal measure.
This is a war movie, but it’s better described as a meta-film about war movies. The director of this particular battle saga, Nobuhiko Obayashi, was a veteran of a different sort, and was well up to the task of helming such a project. Obayashi passed away in April 2020 after a prolific career filled with an eclectic and psychedelic assortment of masterpieces. Though best known for the off-the-wall wonder Hausu, he also made the war movies Casting Blossoms to the Sky, Seven Weeks, and Hanagatami, which showcase a haunting preoccupation with the horrors of war. Dark themes return in his final work — but so does a beacon of hope regarding cinema’s healing power.
The narrative centers on a cinema by the shore in the charming village of Onomichi (where Obayashi was born). Its local movie theater, Setouchi Kinema, announces it will soon shut down, and viewers descend upon the cinema to watch an all-night movie marathon.
The evening’s slate features everything from samurai epics and propaganda pieces to toe-tapping mid-century musicals, in order to show the audiences — who claim to not know what war is — history through movies. An assortment of viewers assemble, perhaps the most compelling of whom is Noriko (Rai Yoshida), a schoolgirl who becomes determined to learn as much as she can about herself and the world through film. She is joined by her sweet love interest Morio Baba (Takuro Atsuki), self-described film history maniac Hosuke (Takahito Hosoyamada), and wannabe bad-boy Shigeru (Yosihiko Hosoda). If they didn’t know what war was before, they certainly do after the screenings commence — for they are not just watching war movies, but becoming part of them.
For a movie that showcases the human costs of battle and the horrific, senseless, and ceaseless violence we have waged on one another, this tale is surprisingly fun. The narrator, Fanta G (Yukihiro Takahashi), is a time traveler — as if it wasn’t already clear that this is no ordinary war story. We gain the ability to time travel through film, visiting other periods and places of fantasy — but also visiting scenes of violence and horror, from bloody battles to atomic bomb attacks. The film sends a strong anti-war message, striving to show how we can use the power of cinema to bring about an end to war and create world peace. This is an ambitious aim, but if there was anyone to take on such a task, it was this maestro, who created one last message of love before bidding the world goodbye. Even as it takes us on a crash-course through history, Labyrinth of Cinema pairs the deadly serious with the sweetly humorous, and there is a theatricality to its presentation.
As ethereal images and half-formed fragments of memory float by, we feel ourselves in a war movie, a cheesy sci-fi, a video game, a technicolor epic, a still-life painting, and an action-packed battle all at once as images collide in an ultra-bright collage. Dreamy images by cinematographer Hisaki Sanbongi switch between black-and-white and ultra-saturated color, swapping between an old movie feel to the aesthetic of CGI-infused video games. This war story is sumptuous and cinephilic, and as expected for this master of the surreal and avant-garde, Obayashi draws weirdness out of dreams to create his chimerical collage. As much as it is a nostalgic homage or a time machine, the film is also a profoundly inventive experiment; the sheer range and technical imagination in this film make it an assault on the senses (in a good way) — and we are never quite sure what we might experience next.
The climax comes as our gaggle of movie-goers ventures onto a film set just before the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, where they encounter actors and victims and try to alter the outcome. Reality and movies are deeply intertwined, and cinema holds immense power: it shows us what we are, but also makes us what we are. But watching alone cannot change the world, and the film urges us after soaking it all in to get up and kick into action, for the sake of honoring history as well as preserving the world to come. Obayashi faced a lengthy illness, and so was aware that this would be his final film during its production. He seems to load every word with as much meaning as possible, every frame with as much visual information to keep subsequent generations busy with plenty to sift through long after he is gone. This culmination of a career is jam-packed with pointed political statements even if it’s absurd and whimsical — war is utter madness, after all. Dream on, Obayashi — and we will keep dreaming in vivid color, thanks to you.