Trailer: Nobuhiko Obayashi’s Fantastical Final Film ‘Labyrinth of Cinema’

That Nobuhiko Obayashi was born in Onomichi, Hiroshima Prefecture in 1938 probably set up his entire life and career, as there seemed to be an urgency about everything he did. With his uniquely surrealistic cinematic style, he would ultimately end up – he died of lung cancer in April 2020 – being considered as one of Japan’s greatest ever filmmakers. He also directed somewhere in the neighborhood of about 3000 commercials, as if the possibility of death was always on his mind, and he felt he must work and work and work before the hand of fate might at any moment just come and take it all away.

His stage-four diagnosis happened all the way back in 2016. But he still managed to finish the monumental Hanagatami in 2017, the third in a trilogy of anti-war films, to rapturous acclaim. Yet with more still to say, he completed Labyrinth of Cinema in 2019, whilst undergoing cancer treatment, and it is at last seeing release in America. Surely knowing he had not much time left on this Earth, the film is both a tribute to the power of cinema, and a remembrance of the unimaginable tragedy that marked his childhood.

The story begins with three men entering an old theater in present day Onomichi, and suddenly being transported back in time to August of 1945. It was just before that fateful morning when the American warplane Enola Gay dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, killing 66,000 people. The US trailer has just been released, and it first shows a young girl enthusing, “I will go into the movie, to find out who I am.” It’s a line that immediately resonates, especially for anyone who has ever found answers to life’s most exigent questions within the frames of the great celluloid treasures of the last hundred years or so.

In classic movie musical style, we then see a troupe of women on stage dancing and gleefully singing, “Movies are dreams / Dreams are movies / It’s a wonderful thing.” A voiceover then tries to spoil the party by reminding us that, “Happiness is unachievable, a lie.” And one can’t help but think of the duality of so many Woody Allen films, where existential crises were always crossing paths with unexpected little joys. The trailer ends with a solider running into the arms of his beloved, against a burning red sky – a scene that is clearly rife with metaphor.

Doubtless, Labyrinth of Cinema promises a fantastical, visually resplendent journey through Obayashi’s complex philosophical mindscape. And after nineteen months of fear, anxiety and ever escalating death tolls, it just may also help to remind that while life’s terrible tragedies will always be with us, we can often find solace in art – and in this case, it might even make you get up and dance a bit.

Labyrinth of Cinema will be released via Crescendo House at The Metrograph, New York, October 20, and at The Lumiere Cinema, Los Angeles, October 29 (co-presented by Acropolis Cinema). A nationwide theatrical release will follow.

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