Biweekly Binge: Time hopping through history via cinema
A fortnightly column on what’s good in the vast ocean of content in the streaming platforms around you, and this week, it's Labyrinth of Cinema, streaming on MUBI
Nobuhiko Obayashi’s final film Labyrinth of Cinema is an epic ballad of cinema, bending genres and sculpting new ones, combining commentary with parody and creating a vast canvas – full 3 hours – that packs the weight of history of civilization in a teardrop of history of Japan. The film is anti-war, it is a fantastical adventure undertaken by three men who congregate in the town of Onomichi for a final all-nighter projection of the establishment’s favourite – war movies. They are sucked into the world they are witnessing along with the actors, a mysterious, ubiquitous girl Noriko, whom they follow as they walk the trail of violent Japanese fiefdoms, feudalism and empires, constantly engaged in war and imperialist crimes.
Where is cinema, you ask? It’s everywhere. Labyrinth of Cinema – streaming on MUBI – is part pastiche and a triptych. The town of Onomichi serving as the anchor, Noriko serving as the navigator and the three men time period hopping with the knowledge of their post-war, relative peacetime future. One is a wannabe yakuza; another is a geeky historian with a pocketbook in hand and the third is a romantic cinephile. In the first hour, our three heroes find themselves in the silent era of filmmaking but feudal era of Japan. It is Obayashi and therefore the film is unambiguously anti-war. It even expects cinema to do one better – to inform, to educate, to revolt and pose the toughest of questions. It is not lost that cinema itself was born out of the idea of propaganda (“we have to learn the dangerous trap of movies”, someone says) – from The Birth of a Nation to Nazi films to Hollywood’s own pre-war and wartime and post-war appropriations. If the Nazi ambush was first underestimated (except for maybe Chaplin), Hollywood later resigned to making films that aided boosting the morale of America as it plunged into war aligning with the Soviet Union, an improbability till the sunrise of the 1940s. Thus, came Song of Russia and Mission to Moscow and many others, only for the post-war mood to return to a miasma of communism as the government saw it, giving way to the Hollywood Blacklist and McCarthy era. It is this malleable nature of cinema that Obayashi taps into to create his vast maze, a riot of colours and images, cartoony textures and visual effects to always remind us that we might be in 1800s Japan, but we are also in the audience in Onomichi. There is even a general committing genocide with a Hitler moustache. It’s Obayashi unequivocally saying that one might know of only Adolf Hitler but there have been Hitlers in many generations in every country and they continue to thrive to this day (look at April-May 2021 Israel-Palestine conflict post the clashes in Al-Aqsa Mosque).
Labyrinth of Cinema might be 180 minutes long, but it leaves no room to breathe. Events occur in the blink of an eye, great arguments are made in throwaway fashion and moments on the screen overlap with those behind the screen (here, the movie theatre in Onomichi). Sometimes lines carry weighty winks – like the projectionist explaining the process of two films joined together, each a 10-minute reel, due to reel shortages. He finishes by saying, “that’s why it’s called streaming”. Obayashi even finds time to be playfully didactic – “videos on devices aren’t as immersive as they are on screen”.
While these provide self-aware guffaws, there is a joyful optimism that brims over Labyrinth of Cinema. Maybe cinema does have the power to change and inform the future. Maybe we could learn things through cinema that we otherwise might never encounter, as he suggests. But isn’t that just another weapon to be wielded safely and sparingly by filmmakers with a conscience? One can hope. If Obayashi can make this film while receiving treatment for stage four cancer, what excuses do the younger lot have? Labyrinth of Cinema will probably remain the best last film of one of the best auteurs to have ever lived.