Nobuhiko Obayashi was never one to give less than his best, even when he was diagnosed with stage-4 terminal cancer in 2016. Not only did he complete a feature, Hanagatami, in 2017 but he finished editing his final work, Labyrinth of Cinema, while receiving cancer treatment. As far as final works from auteurs go, Labyrinth of Cinema is perhaps the best in terms of encapsulating a director’s style and concerns.
To summarize a film as (pardon the pun) labyrinthine as Labyrinth of Cinema would be sheer folly. Essentially, a one-screen movie theater in Onomichi (part of the Hiroshima prefecture in Japan) finds itself unexpectedly full when a rainstorm forces locals and tourists to seek shelter. Labyrinth focuses primarily on a young man named Mario Baba (one of many delicious film references), played by Takuro Atsuki, and his relationship with Noriko (Rei Yoshida), a young girl who frequents the theater, who finds herself sucked into the movies that are playing on the screen. Soon, Mario and two other men, the gangster Shigeru (Yoshihiko Hosoda) and the bookish Hosuke (Takahito Hosoyamada) find themselves sucked into the world of cinema too (exclusively Japanese), and take it upon themselves to protect Noriko and other performers they encounter along the way.
There is no room to mention in this plot summary the fact that an alien visits the town to observe the cinematic hijinks. Or the literally dozens of films that Obayashi puts his protagonists through, from samurai epics to romantic melodramas. Perhaps someone who is quite knowledgeable in Japanese cinema specifically would get a lot more out of this film. Even at a hefty three hours, Obayashi establishes a pace so frenetic that even his protagonists struggle to keep up. It is difficult to tell what is happening in real life and what is happening in the film world at many points in the narrative. And frankly, the film gets exhausting, as if a middle-aged person is being asked to keep up with the pace of a teenage track star.
But Obayashi is not a director who is all style and no substance. His most famous work to Westerners, the seminal and quirky horror movie House, may seem to be a pre-MTV exercise in surrealism and absurdity. Yet that film has a deep underpinning of sadness over the effects of World War II and the nuclear apocalypse that defined a whole generation of Japanese people. The woman who is haunting the young girls is resentful of how they were born in a world where they did not experience the immediate effects of those bombings. As playful as it is, House is meant to be a sober reflection on the generation gap that exists between older and younger Japanese people.
Labyrinth of Cinema commits to its name by spanning multiple film genres and doing heightened takes on them. But the basic premise of the films that Obayashi parodies and pays homage to stays the same. A girl must be protected from the violence and conflict that is typical of these genres. And when the film slowly starts to reveal its hand, we realize that the reason Obayashi explores this particular trope so insistently is because it speaks to everyone, no matter who you are. The girl, as she does in so many movies, often symbolizes something that the auteur longs for and needs, whether it is actual amorous love or something else. And when we finally realize who Noriko is actually supposed to represent, the emotional impact lands with a crushing blow.
The genius of Obayashi has really only been explored in the West in the past decade or so. His influence may be seen in some of the most outre cinema that comes from Japan, or perhaps even in the Japanese commercials that Westerners seem to fetishize for their bizarreness. But Obayashi was a very playful artist exploring deep and poignant themes. His serious playfulness meant that even his last work is bursting with life and creativity to fill four movies while ultimately managing to pull off an intensely elegiac tone. This seriously playful artist will be sorely missed.