By Ed Sum
(The Vintage Tempest)
at the Victoria Film Festival
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All films begin Feb 5th, 2021
Note: Geo-locked to residents in British Columbia
Nobuhiko Ōbayashi‘s Labyrinth of Cinema is not only a tribute to the Golden Age of Hollywood but also an anti-war film. The many genres this era introduced helped define the shape of entertainment still to come, and its fondly honoured. We see a bit of everything in this film, from animation to comedy to sci-fi, and there’s even a splash of horror offered after a few musical moments. The best bits are with the romances, though.
The films of today are a lot more sophisticated in terms of realism. This filmmaker went old school to make this movie, and he wanted his performers to overact. They are in on the joke. He uses those techniques to emphasize why the modern (nuclear) age is terrible. The realism is just that, and the fiction is in technicolour. Unlike Ishirō Honda‘s intent in Gojira (1954), this work makes a different commentary about why going to war is bad (from the eyes of one side in the conflict). Also included is the fear of where humanity is headed–whether or not any future conflicts to come will destroy humanity. Ultimately, his goal is to show us why engaging in the art of war (and not in the Sun Tzu sense) is bad.
Ōbayashi makes use of humour to hammer in the point. He also broke a lot of rules from movie making 101 when he was in post-production, namely the editing of Labyrinth of Cinema. I was taught to avoid jump cuts in my newsroom videos, but he’s gratuitous in using this technique. The plot here is non-linear, and he purposely micro-budgeted the set design in some of this film’s best romantic moments to make it picturesque, like it’s from a painting. More green screen sets were used to distinguish the many realities explored. My guess is that the only proper place was a movie theatre and everything else was digitally created.
The story begins in outer space where it feels very MST3K-ish, about a time traveller coming to present reality and providing the narration, and coming to Earth to witness a group of three lads—Morio Baba (Takuro Atsuki), Hosuke (Takahito Hosoyamada) and Shigeru (Yoshihiko Hosoda)–escaping a rain storm to only get more than a lifetime of experiences at a movie theatre! They take comfort in there (soon to close its doors for good) with the beautiful Noriko (Rei Yoshida, pictured below) they meet. This teen has been working at this movie house for some time and believes she can get an education in film. Tonight, it’s hosting a marathon of various types of war films. On the night they are here, she’s part of the show. After some well crafted vaudeville moments and a raging storm outside, she’s catapulted into the celluloid world!
About 75% of the movie sees the boys Quantum Leaping into many films, chasing after her in order to save this girl from some ugly fates. There’s a non explicit rape scene, so be warned. They way they enter these films takes on tones from Last Action Hero. That is, those worlds have no other purpose than in how they’re written.
These segments feel satirical given how different the stage direction is and this filmmaker makes use of strong visual juxtapositions to give this film a surreal edge. The acting gets even more melodramatic, and the commentary from the audience offers the best laughs. Noriko either purposely gets lost in those movies within a movie for a reason, and in what we witness is in how ugly engaging in war is. There’s a bit of Pythonesque humour involved, and without it, watching this film would’ve been a chore.
The beauty in these segments is in how the lads are navigating the ghosts of Japan’s past and learning something about themselves in the process.
Noriko and Shigeru’s relationship is cute. They share some wonderful moments which recall those classic films of yore. It’s more theatrical in the sense of watching a Broadway play. Without it, the anti-war message that concludes each segment would have felt overdone.
This film moves too fast to make sense of it all, and it requires another view. Or in my case, wanting to buy the home video release and hope the video extras can offer some additional interpretations. It’s uncertain if any director’s commentary was made prior to Ōbayashi’s death. He passed away a year after the film was released. At least he was able to see audience reactions when it premiered at the 2019 Tokyo International Film Festival.
The pause of a button is certainly required because this work is three hours long! Ultimately, the entire premise is about showing how engaging in war, not just bloodshed, is bad. There are other methods of conflict resolution. If we’re to become better citizens of the world, talking it out is one method. Or with anime, perhaps a game of Jan-ken-pon is all that’s needed!
4½ Stars out of 5