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Nobuhiko Obayashi, who died on April 10 at age 82, finished directing two films after receiving a diagnosis of terminal lung cancer in 2016. “Hanagatami,” an ensemble drama set in Kyushu as Japan marched to war in the early 1940s, was released in 2017. “Labyrinth of Cinema,” which premiered at the 2019 Tokyo International Film Festival with a frail but still feisty Obayashi in attendance, has since played at festivals abroad and received well-deserved raves from critics.

Instead of a feeble final effort by a dying man, “Labyrinth of Cinema” is bursting with energy, passion and dreamlike invention, and while conveying a strong antiwar message, it is anything but preachy. The tone is that of a cheeky black comedy — minus the cynicism — while the border between reality and fantasy dissolves into a colorful alternative universe that is uniquely Obayashi’s.

As an in-demand maker of TV commercials starting from the 1960s, Obayashi became a master at holding the audience’s attention moment to moment, though in “Labyrinth of Cinema” he does it not with Hollywood celebrities like Charles Bronson, star of Obayashi’s well-remembered men’s toiletries ad, but rather with his unfettered visual imagination and abundant storytelling gifts. You can’t help but pay attention when an avuncular “guide” named Fanta G (YMO drummer and vocalist Yukihiro Takahashi) discourses on Japanese history as giant goldfish swim around him in a time machine.

Labyrinth Of Cinema (Umibe No Eigakan: Kinema No Tamatebako)
Rating
Run Time 179 min
Language Japanese
Opens July 31

Though the film’s running time is nearly three hours, it clips along entertainingly, if seriously. Many of the historical references may be unfamiliar to non-Japanese, but the film presents them with artful compression and eye-catching detail.

Taking the poetry of Chuya Nakahara (1907-37) — “Japan’s Rimbaud” — as a framing device, and with Fanta G providing commentary, the film delves into Japan’s violent past from the mid-19th century, when the country was turbulently opening to the West, to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945.

The story begins with a nice-guy movie buff (Takuro Atsuki), a nerdy intellectual (Takahito Hosoyamada) and a volatile gangster (Yoshihiko Hosoda) attending the final screening of an old seaside theater in Onomichi — Obayashi’s hometown.

Through the magic of cinema (and with a nod to Buster Keaton’s “Sherlock Jr.”), they watch the all-night program of “war films,” but also take part in the on-screen action. Noriko (Rei Yoshida), a mysterious teenage girl who says she wants to “know more through movies,” ends up in the films as well, falling victim again and again.

During their many adventures, the protagonists become swept up in the internal power struggles of an elite corps of pro-Shogunate samurai called the Shinsengumi, fight in Manchuria against the Chinese with the desperate Lt. Sako (Tadanobu Asano) and, finally, travel with a theater troupe led by renowned actor Sadao Maruyama (Shunsuke Kubozuka) in the waning days of World War II. Their final destination: Hiroshima.

Given the film’s high death toll and its acerbic running commentary on war’s waste and folly, it seems to be heading toward a climax that is despairing and grim. Instead, it ends on a note that is positive, if not falsely optimistic. Memory, the film tells us, can keep the reality of war’s horrors alive — and movies are bearers of memory as well as stirrers of dreams. The little theater may close, but Obayashi’s last testament will continue to disturb and amaze.

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