Sunday, January 16, 2022

Labyrinth of Cinema

As I post this, there's one last show at the Brattle at 6pm, and, yes, a three-hour Japanese film is a lot to recommend on short notice but tomorrow is a holiday for many and this is a movie where being in a theater is sort of central. I wouldn't say this is the Boston area's only chance to see it this way, as I can see both the Museum of Fine Arts and Harvard Film Archive putting a Nobuhiko Obayashi retrospective on their schedules when they get back to showing movies, but who knows when that will be? Or if that'll be any time soon?

The Brattle offers an potential pairing with a 35mm print of House as well, although I wasn't up for it. It's not the most natural Obayashi double feature, to be honest, but it's probably his best-known movie, at least on this side of the Pacific, so it'll get attention if you don't know the director by name. Alternatively, you could ride the 66 and pair it with Drive My Car at the Coolidge, if you're up for two three-hour Japanese movies. That, I have to admit, would have been a little much for me.

Labyrinth of Cinema

* * * (out of four)
Seen 15 January 2021 in the Brattle Theatre (special engagement, DCP)

Filmmaker Nobuhiko Obayashi lived long enough to get at least two farewell projects completed - Hanagatami was also described as such, and at the time it was noted that finishing a film tended to revitalize him - and while both would see him returning to his early years, this one has him embracing how much of what made him who he was came from the movies. It may not be his greatest film, but it's an energetic, ambitious, and often moving final statement of a man born during war and sustained by film.

He gets into it somewhat slowly, introducing narrator Fanta G (Yukihiro Takahashi) aboard his spaceship that can travel anywhere and any time but alights in 2019 to see the last show at an Onomochi movie theater whose elderly proprietrix has long focused on films about war. Aside from projectionst "Kinema G", she's assisted by 13-year-old island girl Noriko (Rei Yoshida), who says she watches movies to learn about herself. Regulars in the audience are teen cinephile Mario Baba (Takuro Atsuki) and cinema history obsessive Hosuke (Takahito Hosoyamada); among those ducking in out of the rain is Shigeru (Yoshihiko Hosoda), a monk's son who would prefer to be a yakuza. When the projection pulls Noriko into the screen, Mario, Hosuke, and Shigeru are sucked in after her, finding themselves in the civil war of 1868, Manchuria, and eventually Okinawa and Hiroshima during the doomed last months of World War II.

Obayashi is best known for his more playful works, and the film certainly starts out in that vein; Fanta G's spaceship is utterly fanciful in a way that seems to belie how his words often turn to the subject of war, and he'll use the narration to go off on tangents. Visually, he'll often take the widescreen composition and zoom in on one face, framing it in a circle as if seen through a telescope but making the surrounding screen bright green or pink rather than a neutral black, cutting jarringly between angles so as to make the viewer exceptionally aware of the artifice of it all. There are jokes about moving from silents to talkies delivered with the sort of wink that says he knows this is familiar material. There are a couple of moments during this three-hour movie where he seemingly assures the audience that nobody is going to judge them for taking a little nap. It's not subtle but delivered with a light touch.

Or at least, that level is not subtle, because while Obayashi is cheerfully acknowledging that this sort of meta-movie has its own set of rituals even as it mocks the tropes of other genres, he's leveraging that length and choppiness to his own ends. Mario, Hosuke, and Shigeru may have been pulled into the screen, but they are also still in the theater when he cuts back there, highlighting how being drawn into a movie's world is a metaphor but that the power is in how cinema allows one to be in both worlds at once. Many of the early sequences are rousing adventures with playful explanatory subtitles, even when pointedly based on real-world events that had gruesome consequences, but over time, more realism and reflection enters the film and the hyperactive cutting slows down. By the time Mario and his companions find Noriko on a train to Hiroshima days before the bomb will drop, they are thoroughly worn down by war, ready to focus on helping people to survive the upcoming cataclysm.

The three are familiar types, with the actors working well with Obayashi's heightened style. Takuro Atsuki plays Mario as a certain type of passionate but immature teen who doesn't quite grow up even as he has his heart broken but gets a little closer, all nerdy heart on his sleeve. Takahito Hosoyamada's Hosuke and Yoshihiko's Hosoda's Shigeru have different and more internal passions - where Mario's are directed outward toward Noriko, they assume identities to make themselves feel knowledgable or powerful - and do well in showing how a movie reaching them can smooth that out. They're surrounded by nifty casts as they bounce between periods and styles - most notably, perhaps, Tadanobu Asano and Ayumi Ito as competing spies and Shunsuke Kubozuka as a sickly, doomed actor. Yukihiro Takahashi gives Fanta G a sort of modest outsider's cool, and Rei Yoshida invests Norko with a youthful charm and charisma that works even when something about her early lines are kind of faux-profound and as she reappears in various guises, serving as a beacon moving Mario from one period or genre to another.

There's reasons for that, eventually, and as it is eventually revealed one realizes that Labyrinth of Cinema derives a little extra power for being Obayashi's last film. The graying-but-youthful Fanta G played by Takahashi and the mysterious old man at a piano that Obayashi himself plays are both arguably his on-screen avatars, and that duality is important to the movie, which Obayashi made while being treated for terminal cancer: Even those who were very young when World War II ended are growing old and dying now, their first-person experience and perspective being lost. Obayashi hopes and believes that they will still be able to exert an influence for good through their works - he builds the film around the verses of poet Chuya Nakahara and other artists who have passed on - but knows the connection is less strong than it was. Only these three are drawn in out of maybe a hundred in the theater, after all, and he notes that the old 35mm film projector there is a cranky machine in the process of being left behind.

He doesn't necessarily delve too deeply into some of these lines of thought, and indeed, for all that being a final film is part of what gives Labyrinth of Cinema its power, there are also times when Obayashi is being self-indulgent, going on a detour because he won't have another chance to do something, or when one wonders if some unconvincing green-screen work is an artistic choice or an attempt to make shooting easier on a dying man. Heck, the film opens with what amounts to an apology for never finding a project where he could work with an American stage actor he admired. One takes the frustrating with the great, though, and all of it, from the inability to be an invisible craftsman to the bone-deep hatred of war, made Obayashi the filmmaker he was, and all of that is in this last statement.

Full review at eFilmCritic

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