Now that the 2020-21 awards season has been put out of its misery, time to get back to what really matters: watching mad three-hour Japanese time-travel movies. Director Nobuhiko Ôbayashi remains prominent in cinephile circles, in large part down to successive generations rediscovering 1977's out-there haunted-house movie Hausu in repertory or on DVD. Labyrinth of Cinema found Ôbayashi, at 81 years of age, making the sort of eccentric one-off only someone who's been working a long time gets to make. (He died last April, at 82: the finished film has a similar valedictory air to Jodorowsky's recent screen autobiographies.) Imagine a manic Purple Rose of Cairo. One stormy evening, during a provincial moviehouse's final all-nighter, a glitch with the projector traps the audience - including naive schoolgirl Noriko (Rei Yoshida), her sweetheart Mario (Takuro Atsuki), various film buffs, and those who've simply paid to get out of the rain - within various films that collectively represent a broad cross-section of Japanese cinema. First, they find themselves tapdancing into one of those Technicolor musicals designed to raise morale during wartime; the remainder of the night's programme takes in samurai flicks, a coastal romance, Expressionist silents, brothel-house melodramas, a Tarzan-like jungle picture, even a rudimentary stab at animation. We quantum-leap into the film's third hour with the main characters playing soldiers on a train bound for Hiroshima in August 1945 (not far from where Ôbayashi was born seven years earlier) and facing mounting panic as to whether they'll see the credits roll. Most of these movies date from the mid-20th century, coinciding with the director's formative years, and the rebuilding of modern Japan; they're throwaway crowdpleasers repositioned as foundational texts. Yet the storytelling is so protean it wouldn't seem implausible if our cheap-seat heroes suddenly bounced into a post-Ai No Corrida roman-porno or Takashi Miike shocker - or, indeed, wound up back at Hausu itself. Here is cinema that voraciously sets about eating itself, and proof that if you are going postmodern, best to go the whole hog.
For one thing, that synopsis doesn't even begin to get at the riot of invention going on around the fringes of the main timeline here. The pastiche of styles is introduced by a dandyish figure referred to as Fanta G (Yukihiro Takahashi), first seen orbiting the Earth in a spaceship filled with talking koi carp; there are characters with such bizarro-world names as Franz Kapra (Mario's surname is Baba), and cameos from Japanese actors cast as Ozu (no great sweat) and John Ford (a bigger stretch). Ôbayashi has tremendous fun with aspect ratios and masking shifts, displaying a pronounced fetish for the circular peephole within a rectangular frame, inviting us to peer in through what looks like an inversion of the Japanese flag, yet even his conventional 16:9 set-ups get splattered with graphics and footnotes and snippets of onscreen poetry, as if Janet Street-Porter's old Network 7 crew had forced their way back into the mixing booth. The randomness (more specific: the creative liberty) people responded to in Hausu - that ever-winning sense that, narratively and formally, anything could happen - is here writ twice as large, and there's a real joy in witnessing an octogenarian filmmaker insisting on turning any remaining limitations into strengths. Ôbayashi doesn't have the budget to rerun Ran (he's struggling to find seven samurai in places, if he's honest), so he shoots his scattered players in front of green screens; these allow him to stage, say, a beheading by detaching neck from body using the most primitive editing tools. You'll have seen memes from 2003 that were more sophisticated, but the effect is funny and has charm - and if it doesn't quite pay off for you, you don't have long to wait for the next directorial flourish. This is a motion picture where everything is truly mobile; it can't sit still for any one of its 179 minutes, because its creative prime mover has been compelled to cover so much ground.
The wobbly cherry atop the wonky icing on this gloriously nutty cake is that it's also properly moving. For Ôbayashi, the cinema is one of the few democracies left (when the lights go down, we're all in the same position); a portal to other worlds; and a safe space within which both citizens and nations can process trauma. He knew why we're drawn back there, and he also knew how easy it is for us to suddenly find ourselves up there on the screen: Labyrinth is nothing if not a dramatisation of the psychological and emotional slippage that so often takes place in the dark. Though they have recurring themes, the genres being pastiched here represent a range of human experience; the more you see of them, Noriko proposes, the more you'll know, in theory. What elevates the whole way above the usual thinness of movie pastiche is that there's something urgent and fundamental at stake within almost all of the films-within-the-film: an idea of innocence, represented by Noriko, yet tied to the filmmaker's desire to make something up, and the audience's willingness to go along with it. Ôbayashi's cinema - not unlike Jacques Rivette's theatre in Céline and Julie Go Boating - is a game we all play: it's make-believe and dressing-up, a return to a childlike state. Better to stage war, with fake blood and other takebacks, than to actually wage it. That's why we circle back to Hiroshima, evoked with such palpable lived experience as to make Tarantino's rewriting of WW2 seem more puerile yet. Here, Ôbayashi tries to find the one act of creation that might balance out that lamentable act of destruction. (He views the A-bomb as Lynch did in Twin Peaks: The Return: no laughing matter.) Arguably there's a little too much playing at being samurai - hey, welcome to Japanese cinema - and I don't doubt for a minute that you'll get more from it the more au fait you are with these specific genres: both script and performances are riddled with asides and in-jokes, sending the generally nimble subtitles (by Rosemary Dean and Tetsuro Shimauchi) scrambling to keep up. Ôbayashi was engaged in the kind of archiving project that occupied many of us this past year, trying to put an unruly house in order with an eye to what might lie ahead - or as one of his buffs puts it, "It's time to review history, so we can build a better future." What a film this is to lose yourself in, and what a time this is to lose yourself in a film.
Labyrinth of Cinema is now streaming via MUBI UK.