The three-hour long Japanese film Labyrinth of Cinema is veteran director Nobuhiko Obayashi’s final work before his passing, and the film definitely lives up to its title. Like many of Obayashi’s previous films, Labyrinth of Cinema is an anti-war film that explores Japan’s war history in the past two centuries through different cinematic styles and genres. The film features an ensemble cast who can time travel, and traces their journey as they experience various battles and wartime scenes from Japan’s modern history.
Labyrinth of Cinema is effective in conveying its anti-war message through a series of scenarios that reflect Japan’s chaotic wartime history. The audience cannot help but empathize with the protagonists, who the film portrays as innocent characters thrust into the toughest situations. Obayashi also highlights the passive role of the audience when consuming war films.
Journey Through History
The film starts with a passage from acclaimed poet Chuya Nakahara about how human beings can become violently barbaristic in their thirst for power: “they call it modernization. I call it barbarization.”
On a rainy day in the small port town of Onomichi, Hiroshima, the town’s residents gather at the local cinema, which is about to shutter. For its last day of operations, the cinema’s owner decides to screen Japanese war films all night, and there is a huge audience turnout.
Among the audience are our four protagonists: Noriko (a schoolgirl who helps out at the cinema and is well-liked by everyone in the town), Mario Bobo (a good-hearted young man who has a crush on Noriko), Hosuke (an aspiring historian) and Shigeru (a yakuza wannabe). As the movies start rolling, the four main characters find themselves transported back to the late Edo period.
Together, they experience a wide array of military conflicts from the 1800s through the end of World War 2, including the Boshin War, First Sino-Japanese War, Manchurian conquests, and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The film is a collage of scenes from Japan’s war history, depicted through different cinematic styles like musicals, silent films, talkies, and animation.
Although there is no clear central narrative, the different war scenarios generally follow a chronological order.
However, the transition between different scenes feels jumpy; despite each scene featuring the same four main characters, it’s hard to keep track of what’s actually happening in the film due. The main characters are suddenly and magically transported to new battlefields with completely new appearances, and the cinematic style of the film varies between scenes. One scene takes the form of a silent movie with subtitles, while the next scene transforms into a jovial musical in vivid colors.
However, this lack of cohesion does have one redeeming quality, in that it reflects the chaos that ensued during Japan’s military history.
Throughout Labyrinth of Cinema, wartime violence interrupts emotional scenes to highlight how destructive war is for innocent civilians. In one scene set in Okinawa prior to World War II, Obayashi sets up an idealistic scenario of a couple falling in love on a beach. As their love blooms, war breaks out and disrupts the scene. This effectively illustrates that war summons tragedy and has a hugely destructive impact on people’s lives
Obayashi repeats this parallel of the impossibility of romance in many other scenes, irrespective of the time period and setting. Noriko is always at the center of the battle, and the three male characters can never rescue her before they jump to the next scene. This motif gives the film hints of a tragic love story; by inserting touching and hopeful moments throughout the film, Obayashi demonstrates the true impact of war.
Obayashi also highlights the passive role of the audience as bystanders in Labyrinth of Cinema. Shots of the in-film audience in the Onomichi theater interrupt the scenes of our four protagonists; however, the audience merely passively enjoys the war film. Instead of reflecting on the message of the movie they’re watching, they continuously reiterate that everything portrayed on-screen is just fiction. Labyrinth of Cinema thus condemns the inaction and passivity of the in-movie audience as enablers of militarism.
Despite being a part of the in-movie silver screen, the four protagonists still remain as part of the audience. This mirrors real life: even when watching the best movies that put us in the shoes of its characters, we as an audience maintain a certain distance between the on-screen action and our reality. Obayashi points out that cinema has the power to be truly transformative if audience members can actually absorb the messages conveyed in films and use those messages to make a difference in the real world.
For much of its recent history, Japan was usually the perpetrator of war. However, Labyrinth of Cinema displays a different side of the Japanese people. By adopting a pacifist and anti-war stance from the start, Obayashi presents an important message about the dangers that war has on society. His final film is a plea for the world to solve future issues through non-violent means.
Even though Labyrinth of Cinema‘s frantic jumps are hard to follow, the disparate scenes eventually come together to effectively convey a strong anti-war message, which is increasingly relevant as Japan becomes more militarist.
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Labyrinth of Cinema (Japanese: 海辺の映画館 キネマの玉手箱)—Japan. Dialog in Japanese. Directed by Nobuhiko Obayashi. First released November 1, 2019 at the Tokyo International Film Festival. Running time 2hr 59min. Starring Takuro Atsuki, Takahito Hosoyamada, Yoshihiko Hosoda, Rei Yoshida, Riko Narumi, Hirona Yamazaki, Takako Tokiwa.
Labyrinth of Cinema was screened at Japan Cuts 2020.