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Labyrinth of Cinema (Nobuhiko Obayashi, 2021)

Welcome to Setouchi Kinema, please take a seat. It’s the last picture show for this theater in the backwater of Onomichi, Japan, and three young men (an aspiring yakuza, a serious “movie history fanatic,” and a romantic, wide-eyed cinephile called Mario Baba) are about to be magically transported into the war films they’ve come to watch. Hopping from movie to movie in Sherlock Jr. style, they will hurtle through decades of Japanese military history—from feudal battles to the bombing of Hiroshima—and chase after a young girl who, like them, has found her way into the screen, and dreams of a pacifist future. This, in a nutshell, is the plot of Nobuhiko Obayashi’s heartrending Labyrinth of Cinema; how you’ll respond to it won’t depend on how much you know about Japan’s past or Obayashi’s idiosyncratic oeuvre (which spans horror, coming-of-age drama, experimental film, and even animation), but how receptive you are to the wildly utopian question that haunts the film: what if cinema could still serve as a force for change, a means to imagine a more peaceful world?

Labyrinth of Cinema is Obayashi’s last movie, but for a farewell work—or indeed, an anti-war missive—the tone is not in the least maudlin. Graced with omnipresent green-screen trickery that leaves characters floating against photo-booth-quality backdrops (alongside goldfish, spacecrafts, and samurais…), saturated colors, cameos from late masters like Ozu and John Ford, on-screen text featuring poems by Chūya “Japan’s Rimbaud” Nakahara, and restless editing, Labyrinth is an anarchic odyssey. And the flamboyant, hyper-artificial style underscores Obayashi’s message: the film invites us to see through the lies that fuelled centuries of armed conflict, while reminding us that those same narratives can be undone. That accounts for the optimism that bristles all through Labyrinth: yes, the history of mankind may be rooted in endless horror, but we are not condemned to perpetuate it. It’s an uplifting rebuke of passive moviegoing, and a plea to look at cinema as the “magic box” that may not alter history, but can still suggest a new way of being in the world. After all, as Obayashi himself reminds us in the film, “a movie can change the future, if not the past.”