Mazes and labyrinths, while visually similar, hold different meanings in both semantic and metaphorical senses. A maze refers specifically to a puzzle containing different routes for navigating an exit, while a labyrinth has only one distinct path which leads to its exact center. Mazes are intellectual exercises while labyrinths are meditative and symmetrical. Of course, labyrinths are also mythologically significant, the dreaded minotaur of ancient Greek folklore being a storied inhabitant of the labyrinth’s very core.
Keeping these distinctions in mind, Japanese filmmaker Nobuhiko Obayashi’s Labyrinth of Cinema—making its U.S. debut via Mubi on April 27—might appear more maze-like than labyrinthine at first. An ostensible journey through Japanese cinema and how the practice of filmmaking has come to bear historic significance for the nation, the movie’s timeline-jumping and propensity for abstract tangents initially signal chaos, but eventually pan out as perfectly kaleidoscopic. A distinct central thought eventually emerges, enmeshed within the apparent frenzy: War is an unnecessary human evil, its incalculable horrors evident in the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and, on an equally nefarious plane, Japanese imperial efforts like the Japanese Boshin Civil War, Russo-Japanese War and World War II. As opposed to a fatalistic or anxious overarching tone, Obayashi’s principle thesis comes loaded with optimism and hope for the future.
Labyrinth of Cinema is part magical realism, part film school crash course, part restoration of historical record. On the closing night of the sole movie house on the Onomichi seafront, a programmed all-night marathon of Japanese war films attracts a large and diverse crowd of movie lovers bidding adieu to the beloved locale. When a bolt of lightning strikes the theater, three young men named Mario (Takuro Atsuki), Dugout (Yoshihiko Hosoda) and Tori (Takahito Hosoyamada) are teleported into the films being shown on-screen.
As they navigate their newfound celluloid landscapes and follow the beautiful Noriko (Rei Yoshida) between frames, a journey through Japanese cinema brings the men to specific points of historical significance, encouraging them to learn both about the events being depicted and the craft of recreating these moments on screen. Brief imagined conversations between renowned filmmakers Yasujiro Ozu and Sadao Yamanaka are presented betwixt brightly saturated title cards; films like The Rickshaw Man, Humanity and Paper Balloons and It’s a Wonderful Life are contextualized and the creators behind them unpacked in quasi-academic fashion. However, stark lines between reality and fiction begin to soften and blur—a situation that proves more and more perilous as the men are cast into brutal situations of war, violence and crushing loss.
However, the film is not insularly interested in cinema as the most reliable medium for conveying historical emotional sentiment or artistic prowess. The poetry of Chuya Nakahara propels much of the narrative, often lyrically distilling concepts in which Obayashi soaks into a few sentences. “They call it modernization. I call it barbarization,” writes the poet. The director takes this matter-of-fact statement and expands upon it: Why does “progress” for certain sects of humanity mean destruction for another?
“Wars, genocide and annihilation. That’s the history of mankind,” says partial narrator/effective Obayashi stand-in Grandpa “Fanta” (Yukihiro Takahashi), as enormous speckled goldfish swim around the interior of his time-traveling spaceship. The beautifully salient and bitterly true directness of Nakahara’s poetry—contrasted with the visually dense and metaphorically rich style of Obayashi—aids the viewer in identifying key emotional tones and perspectives while allowing these concepts to expand into metaphysical touchstones for exploring intricately connected tangents.
A flair for the absurd and experimental is at the crux of Obayashi’s extensive filmography, perhaps most perfectly exemplified in his 1977 psychedelic horror film House, which follows a troupe of schoolgirls visiting one of their aging aunts who remains widowed after her betrothed never returns from the World War II battlefront. While the presence of wartime loss takes a considerable backseat to the maximalist body horror of floating disembodied limbs and pools of deep red blood, House is the first of many films by Obayashi to explore the corporeal horror of experiencing war and the atomic bomb. Before Labyrinth of Cinema, the filmmaker created a trilogy of anti-war films meant to be his last: Casting Blossoms to the Sky (2012), Seven Weeks (2014) and finally Hanagatami (2017), which started production shortly after the filmmaker was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Yet after concluding the trilogy, Obayashi continued to work on Labyrinth of Cinema, which would screen at the Tokyo International Film Festival in late 2019, only a few months before the director’s death in April 2020.
Even among the abstraction, concrete personal details are also recurring staples of Obayashi’s oeuvre. A fan of trilogies connected by loose themes, the filmmaker interconnects Labyrinth of Cinema with his coming-of-age Onomichi trilogy, encompassing his films I Are You, You Am Me (1982), The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (1983) and Lonely Heart (1985). An Onomichi native himself, Obayashi’s fascination with the locale makes perfect sense—especially considering that the town was also featured (though less prominently) in iconic Japanese films such as Tokyo Story and The Naked Island.
Thus, Labyrinth of Cinema is both a summation of Obayashi’s craft and a literal homecoming. The film is a magnum opus that beautifully blends two prominent aspects of the director’s existing body of work: It platforms the feverish carnage reflective of Obayashi’s existing anti-war films while contrasting the idyllic setting of Onomichi for greater effect. In fact, Onomichi is located in Hiroshima Prefecture, only a short hour and a half drive from Hiroshima. Born in 1938—just seven years before the city’s bombing—Obayashi has stated that many of his childhood friends perished in Hiroshima.
Considering the material loss suffered by the filmmaker due to the atrocities of war, the presence of the atomic bomb as a recurring character makes perfect sense. As pointed out by filmmaker and video essayist Kogonada, Snowflake the cat in House is a feline incarnation of the “Little Boy” bomb, the flashes of light flickering behind his eyes invoking the flash of light that incinerated 80,000 people in an instant.
In Labyrinth of Cinema, its flash of lightning is somewhat more clearly coded as evoking the atomic flash—referred to as pika—and the characters reference the “Little Boy” bomb by name. Particularly when noting the marathon of Japanese war films and the eventual culmination of the characters finding themselves in Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, there is little room for misinterpreting the importance of the juxtaposition between the young men and the 20th century films they are transported into. It is a conversation between generations, one that becomes increasingly urgent as senseless wars and occupations remain as perpetual as the continued struggle for liberation against them. Kogonada also notes the importance of this intra-generational dialogue in his unraveling of House, positing that one of the most important scenes in the film occurs within a mirror that morphs the face of a young girl into that of an old woman before cracks in the glass appear to horrifically disfigure the face’s reflection. Similarly, Labyrinth of Cinema focuses on the mangled figures produced by burning film reels, the crackling embers eliciting images of treacherous firestorms.
“Dark clouds gather behind humanity. Hardly anyone notices it. If you saw it, you’d feel as sick as I do.”
As Nakahara’s poetry graces the screen once again, the parallel between the immensity of such devastating war crimes and the stark dearth of visual proof that documents it is all too evident. There exist virtually no photographs of the immediate effects of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, with military photographer Yosuke Yamahata the only one to develop on-the-ground photos of Nagasaki mere hours after it too was targeted by an atomic bomb. Yamahata’s photos were so horrifying in their unfiltered reality of the tragedy that once the Americans took military control over Japan, his photos were censored and withheld from the public until 1952.
Perhaps because of this historical deficit of preserved photographic record, Obayashi’s abstract obsession with capturing the violent essence of the bomb and depicting the incalculable loss of life through their lingering spiritual impact is a direct effort to retroactively cement these events in visual history. Where House focuses on a malevolent spirit that occupies a home and preys upon its guests, Labyrinth of Cinema is inversely interested in what the Japanese call zashiki-warashi, or “parlor child” spirits—said to bring prosperity to the abodes they dwell in. Ironically, these centuries-old spirits are said to have been either crushed to death by stones or wrongfully killed and buried in their homes, both visual representations of death in the subsequent rubble created by the bomb. The eternal presence of those who have passed on is also explored in the film, as the young men encounter reincarnations of a tortured young girl in several of the films they visit. This also represents what cinema offers: A form of eternal life. To exist in a film means to exist in your captured physical form forever.
By the time the viewer realizes they have reached the center of the Labyrinth, it’s evident that everything expounded upon in the previous two and a half hours was carefully planted, grown and molded in order to create the eventual structure that would take shape. Every piece of dialogue is so beautifully and cleverly emblematic of Obayashi’s cinematic practice—each perfectly ushering along epiphanies and imparting knowledge among both characters and viewers—yet the filmmaker is sure to save room at the very end in order to clearly state his final wish for his audience.
“All humans on Earth wanted to go to war,” begins a voice narrating marching soldiers. “It’s a past that can’t be reversed. But each of us has the power to make a future where war has no place in our everyday lives.”
With this confrontation, there is also deep-seated optimism. Change is not only necessary, but attainable across humankind. In this statement is also continued recognition for the role Japan has played in imperialistic destruction, with the abysmal crimes committed against Manchuria repeatedly mentioned by name in the film. In this sense, cinema serves as a tool which can teach, heal, educate, explore. It is untethered by laws of time, space and physics. Obayashi therefore feels it’s the perfect vessel not only to confront the (un)reality of history, but to explore the multifaceted futures which exist just out of reach.
“To young people who want a future where no one knows wars, we dedicate this movie with blessing and envy,” a piano player says, his back to the audience during the final frames of the film. “In order for us to achieve world peace, there are many things our hands can turn to.”
The core of the Labyrinth doesn’t hold a destructive force, but rather a restorative one. In order to prevent future generations from perpetuating the same destruction as their predecessors, hands must turn to cinema, to preservation, to peace.
Natalia Keogan is a Queens-based writer who covers film, music and culture, with particular interest in the horror genre and depictions of sexuality and gender. You can read her work in Narratively, Filmmaker Magazine and Paste, and find her on Twitter.