After dragging my feet for several days (I’m not ashamed to admit that I found the three-hour running time to be somewhat intimidating), I finally took the plunge and rented Labyrinth of Cinema on the Japan Cuts website. Director Nobuhiko Obayashi (best known in the U.S. for the cult horror classic Hausu)—who lost his battle with cancer just a few months ago—probably knew that this would be his swan song, and he therefore approaches the dense subject matter with the vivacity and gusto of a man significantly younger than his eighty-two years.
Set in an old-school cineplex that is scheduled to close its doors following one last movie marathon, the plot revolves around three audience members that are abruptly transported into the world beyond the silver screen (the precise mechanism behind this supernatural phenomenon remains ambiguous: Was it the work of a mischievous time traveler? Or was a sudden lightning strike the culprit?). What begins as a journey through Japan’s postwar film industry soon transitions into a sober (though not entirely self-serious) meditation on the country’s very real history of strife and bloodshed, from the Sengoku period to the bombing of Hiroshima. Traversing multiple diverse genres (including musicals, samurai epics, and wartime melodramas) and encountering a variety of notable historical figures (including Yasujiro Ozu, Sadao Yamanaka, Miyamoto Musashi, John Ford, and... Tarzan?), our protagonists experience a gradual spiritual transformation, learning from the mistakes of their nation’s past so that they might build a brighter future.
Obayashi’s humanist philosophy is about as subtle as his visual style, which makes absolutely no effort to conceal the artificiality of the setting (the rear projection and green screen effects couldn't possibly be more obvious)—and yet, surprisingly enough, that thematic transparency is actually his greatest strength. Labyrinth of Cinema is a gloriously disorienting, hypnotic, borderline avant-grade cinematic acid trip... but its relentlessly optimistic tone is what truly captured my imagination.