Nobuhiko Obayashi, who passed away earlier this year, on April 10, was until recently relegated to the periphery of cinematic discussions of legacy. His status as a master filmmaker — he humbly preferred to be called a ‘film artist’ or a ‘cinematic magician’ — was taken for granted, and his career, which spanned nearly sixty years, is to this day defined to casual filmgoers largely by his uncategorizable, psychedelic ghost tale of sorts, House, which found new fans through its Criterion release. It’s surprising enough that Obayashi’s swansong, Labyrinth of Cinema, was made after he was diagnosed with cancer in 2017 and given only three months to live, but that he delayed death and completed a final brilliant work that goes beyond his own established brand of experimentalism and unleashes the wildest recesses of imagination is something approaching miraculous. In Labyrinth of Cinema Obayashi casts on the screen the potentiality of filmic language as he envisions it, a three-hour, madcap anti-war odyssey through the deliriums of Japanese cinema, history, and poetry and weaving these threads with (semi-autobiographical) memories, nightmares, and dreams. Fittingly, it’s a deeply personal cinematic journey, its story set in Obayashi’s childhood hometown of Onomichi, and it revolves around a cinephile schoolgirl named Noriko and a cohort of three young guys — Mario Baba, a movie geek who’s in love with Noriko, his two pals, one a nerdy film historian, the other a wannabe yakuza. The quartet soon find themselves on the silver screen, omnipresent within an unending stream of Japanese war films and period dramas, that take place during an all-nighter acting as a farewell to the oldest movie theater in town.
Undoubtedly, many of Obayashi’s cinematic and historical references here will be difficult to grasp, but they are far from the film’s central concern. Instead, the director employs brisk editing, fast-paced camera angle shifts, trippy color saturation, and his familiar chaotic imagery and cartoonish tonal atmosphere to immerse us in his final creation in much the same way that his teenaged protagonists here find themselves absorbed within the horrors and absurdities of the past. Labyrinth of Cinema suggests it’s through these cycles that we can “build the future,” but Noriko also states that it’s an effort “to find ourselves.” Obayashi likely thinks the answer is both, and in that spirit he never tries to conceal his visual gimmicks, instead proving eager to reveal cinema’s artifice as not just a method for reclaiming imagination in a despairing world but also as a means to effect our realities from within. It’s what Obayashi always sought to accomplish with film, and so it’s fitting that in his final work he has chosen to depict himself as the strange old pianist who decides to live in the movie forever, crouching over a piano, playing the music of peace toward eternity.
Published as part of Japan Cuts 2020 | Dispatch 2.