Nobuhiko Ôbayashi is the hero of his own movie. He is the masterpiece, the wonder of the show, the medical miracle who outsurvived a cancer prognosis, not to make just one more movie, but two. His final work, as though sanctioned by the god to be finished, Ôbayashi provides a sweeping, all-encompassing look into the rearview mirror of Japanese cinema and particularly its intersection with war. With a Godardian bent — think Histoire(s) du cinéma (1988), but narratively driven — the master from Japan has important questions about the history of cinema and the lens through which it has analyzed war, and whether the movies have analyzed it enough.
When dark clouds brew over humanity, Ôbayashi posits, there is every opportunity for the cinema of the time to record its history. To reshape the experientially negative and renew its life on the screen. A great optimist, the director engages fully with his native land’s storied history of the war movie. His own filmography casts a long shadow, a prolific anti-war collection — see: his recent war trilogy: Casting Blossoms to the Sky (2012); Seven Weeks (2014); and Hanagatami (2017) — of which, this becomes a strikingly poignant examination of. Hanagatami was the film he always meant to finish, the 40 year accumulation of impassioned dreams come to fruition. How great is it, that we get a second final film? The aftershock of making his dream film reverberates through his follow-up here, a narrative rumination on the act of making a war trilogy, a processing of deep feelings showing a lifetime of empathy and learning.
Labyrinth of Cinema, as the title implies, is maze-like in complexity. A theater in Onomichi — the director’s hometown and star of many of his films — hosts a marathon of historic war pictures, just before it closes its doors the following day. The last show of the last theater in town. A great storm and drenching rain drive all the locals inside, where they are transported into the movies. The work reels through the entire cinematic imagination of Japan’s war history. It is about the artist’s capacity to tell these stories and how they are reflected back to the audience. It is a hopeful thing, saying that the war movie does not always reach its full capacity, but only because it has every potential to do so. That the very potential to do so is fully ingrained in the artist, and it is their creative responsibility to get it right.
There is tangibly nothing else like it. Even within his final days, the director plays with green screens and avant-garde techniques like he has just discovered the pure joy of experimenting with a camera. This is an entire life’s work, encompassed in a lengthy, loving dedication to the work itself, and our experience of it. We could expect nothing less of the director who gave us Hausu (1977) — and, do not worry — Ôbayashi’s cinema is still a madhouse. The final work of a master who lived through their work, Labyrinth of Cinema proclaims, “here’s the potential of what cinema can do for a country,” and passes the torch.