There is no film more indicative of “you either love it, or you don’t” than Nobuhiko Ôbayashi’s 1977 horror film, House. The surrealist and absurdist take on the typical haunted house story creates a film that defies all convention and filmmaking constraints in the process of creating genuinely one of the craziest films of all time. If it isn’t clear, I am a massive fan of House and Ôbayashi’s approach to filmmaking as both a serious and silly artform. There’s a love for film and the conventions of it all in Ôbayashi’s work, even as he works to break them down piece-by-piece in his own experimental work. Labyrinth of Cinema, Ôbayashi’s final film before his death in April 2020 at the age of 82, is a rousing anti-war epic that explores the history of war in Japan while also painting a colorful picture of his relationship with film over the years of his life, leading him to his final picture. It’s an absurdist magnum opus of experimental flair that punctuates a beautifully strange career for Ôbayashi.
Set in the near future in Onomichi, near Hiroshima, Japan, Labyrinth of Cinema finds a group of people gathering together for the final show for the last cinema in the city before it closes permanently. The four young audience members are transported into the series of Japanese war films being showcased, experiencing the history and pain of war in Japan, and learning of the unnecessary nature of each one.
While seemingly simple on paper, there’s absolutely nothing simple about Labyrinth of Cinema, starting with the opening narration from an omnipotent being time-traveling in from outer space for the film screening, to the post-occupation style musical sequences, to every sub-plot, minor character, historical timeline, aspect ratio switch, digital effect, and everything in-between that packs into the film’s epic three hour runtime with little room to breathe. There’s so much to unpack here, and it feels impossible to do so on one viewing. However, there’s a sense of timelessness that comes with Labyrinth of Cinema that evokes the feeling of such epics that you come back to every couple of years to re-visit at a different point in your life to see how experience has changed how you view things.
And “epic” really is the only word to describe the scale at which Ôbayashi shoots for with his final film. While I’m positive the entire film was shot on a single green screen set, there’s a massive sense of scale in both time and space that gives the film an almost overwhelming size to take in on first viewing. Yet, never did it feel like there was a single moment where Ôbayashi wasn’t creating or saying exactly what he meant to, even if the audience doesn’t always completely follow it. And, in reality, the only person on this planet who genuinely could follow this film in all of its absurd glory is Ôbayashi. That’s how genuinely singular his vision as a filmmaker is.
Said “singular vision” will not hit for most audiences, in all respects, as it simply doesn’t reflect the generally accepted values of serious western cinema as we know it today, as I barely think it reflects on Japanese filmmaking in any socially accepted sense. Ôbayashi exists in the realm of filmmakers like Gaspar Noe and David Lynch, where you truly can’t comprehend everything going on in the film, nor are you truly meant to. These are filmmakers who make films solely for their own sakes and their own visions, caring little about how the general public will respond to them.
That isn’t to say that Labyrinth of Cinema isn’t enthralling as a piece of experimental cinema, for as on-brand as it feels for Ôbayashi, there are simply stylistic choices that I have never seen from any film before made here. Most work for me, some don’t, but I can’t deny that the film completely had my attention from beginning to end.
It’s all so strange and silly at times, but there is such genuine passion and emotion in the message Ôbayashi is putting forth in the film that it’s hard not to feel a little emotional come the film’s finale where it truly feels like Ôbayashi’s entire career has come to a head in a final, bizarre, and strangely beautiful fashion, punctuated wonderfully by Kosuke Yamashita’s beautiful musical score.
At a whopping three hours long, Labyrinth of Cinema is a lot to take in as a film. Given its frantic and intense directorial style, the film often moves at a slow pace simply given how dense the film is with different stylistic changes and story development. One hour in Ôbayashi’s world feels at least doubly long in execution. That’s not a bad thing, by any means, as it truly does make the film feel truly epic in the journey it takes you on from start to finish, as if you have truly gone along on a centuries-long journey with the characters. Some viewers might break the film up into chunks to digest it a bit easier, which I would not fault you for, but if you have the time and energy, digesting the entire film in one sitting is the thing that makes Labyrinth of Cinema feel so special.
And that’s what has stuck with me about Labyrinth of Cinema as a whole, in that, despite my overstimulation, my occasional confusion, my disconnect with some of the humor in the film, or anything else, there’s a special uniqueness to the film that lets me both appreciate the filmic artform as a whole, as well as the genuinely singular style that Ôbayashi has brought to cinema over his 60 year career. This is a life’s work of filmmaking coming together for one final film to hit home Ôbayashi’s love of film and his hatred of war one last time before his death, and he does so with a magically bizarre, funny, unsettling, political, and heartfelt goodbye that only Nobuhiko Ôbayashi could provide.
Currently screening during the 2020 Fantasia International Film Festival.
For more information, visit the 2020 Fantasia Film Festival website.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.