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  Labyrinth of Cinema The War On The Screen
Year: 2019
Director: Nobuhiko Obayashi
Stars: Tadanobu Asano, Takuro Atsuki, Yoshihiko Hosoda, Takahito Hosoyamada, Shinnosuke Mitsushima, Riko Narumi, Yukuhiro Takahashi, Takako Tokiwa, Hirona Yamazaki, Rei Yoshida, Nobuhiko Obayashi
Genre: War, Weirdo, FantasyBuy from Amazon
Rating:  6 (from 1 vote)
Review: It is the last night of business for this Japanese cinema, a coastal establishment that has served its local community for around a hundred years, and as the most popular form of entertainment shown there had been its war movies, that is what the manager has decided to show for a grand finale of an all-nighter. The weather is particularly bad this evening, which has given many in the town the excuse to go and visit rather than stay out, so it is a packed house that are attending the performances, but one patron is a thirteen-year-old girl called Noriko (Rei Yoshida) who is keen to learn about the past from these films...

Labyrinth of Cinema would be the final film of cult Japanese director Nobuhiko Obayashi, made in his early eighties as he gradually succumbed to cancer, rendering it about as close to the epitome of an artistic swan song as it was possible to get. That it was also three hours long and still felt as if it could have said more was testament to the busy mind of the talent, and the fact that it was still buzzing with ideas even as he was dying; with that foremost, you would imagine an elegiac effort that sorrowfully and reflectively considered the details of the impact he had made on the world, and how he felt about leaving it behind at last.

Well, you might expect that, but what you got was a mad dash through centuries of Japanese war experiences as viewed through the prism of how its cinema depicted it, never content to stay still in one place even within the space of a single scene, never mind for the whole... story? Was there a story? If there was, it was not a conventional one as it stuffed its lengthy running time with references and in-jokes as if they were going out of fashion, making Quentin Tarantino look like Andrei Tarkovsky in that respect as three audience members from different walks of life are pulled into the screen, Sherlock Jr-style, to become part of the action.

Noriko has already done this and been part of a Second World War era tap dance routine, a production number intended to be redolent of the escapism on the silver screen in those years. The three young men (two cinephiles, Tatsuro Atsuki and Takahito Hosoyamada, and a monk's son, Yoshihiko Yosoda, who is being victimised by Yakuza) realise they must rescue the girl from the horrors of war that paradoxically, the movies both revel in as that escapism and seek to pose as a warning against in reality, and Obayashi as a dedicated pacifist would have been very aware of the power he was wielding by creating his often fantastical pictures. Therefore we traced this bunch as they stumbled their way through history with increasing earnestness.

And yet, there were jokes in this, absurdities, playfulness and more, the whole thing never staying still for more than a few seconds, with eccentricities such as having the project introduced by a time-travelling space voyager (Yukuhiro Tahahashi) amid a shoal of goldfish. It was as if the director kept remembering one more thing he wanted to say, continually moving towards the exit only to turn on his heel and march back in the room to strike up the conversation afresh, and the effect was initially endearing - this was a set of statements from a man who was expiring, after all – yet ultimately exhausting. You would have to be deeply engaged in Japanese cinema, history and anti-war themes to stay the distance, for Labyrinth of Cinema was simply too much for most viewers to take, yes, it was remarkable in its energy, but its parade of deliberately cheap and shonky digital effects was hard to endure over the course of its elephantine bulk. You applauded the effort, but how many would be able or willing to give it a try, noble intentions or not? Music by Kosuke Yamashita.

[Click here to watch on MUBI.]
Reviewer: Graeme Clark


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