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‘Labyrinth of Cinema’ Film Review: Nobuhiko Obayashi’s Head-Spinning History Lesson

The late filmmaker’s final work is an extravagant message of peace to a world forever at war

When will human beings be free to live their futures — not to mention their various present-tense existences — without the threat of destruction? That question, and its desire for earnest reply, arrives near the end of Nobuhiko Obayashi’s final film (before his death in 2020 at age 82), “Labyrinth of Cinema,” a thrilling, sprawling sensory overload that simultaneously enchants and overwhelms; it’s a fine summation of principle, one that guides every sight and sound that comes before.

A kaleidoscopic rebuke to the idea of passive moviegoing, “Labyrinth” spends the first 120 of its 180 minutes spinning out in all directions, frenetically placing and re-placing three young cinephiles into key moments in Japanese war-film history.

Mario (Takuro Atsuki), Shigeru (Takahito Hosoyamada, “All About Lily Chou-Chou”) and Hosuke (Yoshihiko Hosoda) enter a movie theater in the seaside town of Onomichi, near Hiroshima (Obayashi’s hometown). It’s the theater’s last day of operation, there’s an all-night war-movie marathon going on, and the young men soon find themselves transported into a mutually shared dream of being inside the various films, each one representing a specific 19th or 20th century moment.

While hopping from movie to movie, they meet Noriko (Rei Yoshida), a child who dreams of a warless future, one where she can find romance and happiness. Of course, in this contained universe, observing a film means participating in a film and possibly changing its outcome. Noriko’s fictional future might be in the hands of these real-life interlopers.

The polar opposite of an episodic lurch through linear time, “Labyrinth” finds Obayashi tap-dancing through it, forwards and backwards, preferring flamboyant, giddy spectacle to anything resembling realism. Beginning with his 1977 breakthrough film, the cult horror-comedy “Hausu,” the filmmaker remained almost singularly unclassifiable, his style a whirlwind of influences. Throughout a prolific, decades-spanning career, he indulged his various passions all at once, and they coalesced into his own brand of coherent chaos.

He made aftershave commercials with Charles Bronson and TV spots for ice cream that were set in outer-space discos. Finally, he spent the last decade of his life responding to the 2011 Tohoku earthquake, tsunami, and Fukushima nuclear disaster with a sprawling war trilogy (“Casting Blossoms to the Sky,” “Seven Weeks,” and “Hanagatami”) that has, collectively, set the stage for this last message.

Characters in “Labyrinth” are hurled from one scenario to the next, digressions are many and manic, musical numbers erupt unexpectedly, intentionally cheap green-screen effects amplify the aesthetic of sky-high artifice, people shriek, dance, swordfight, and literally lose their heads, gigantic goldfish swim in zero-gravity space capsules, narration comes and goes, beautifully fake images collide and topple. And then comes World War II.

In the third hour, the action shifts to a relatively calmer pace, as the narrative centers on the monumental task of altering history and pleading for the world outside the movies to refuse wars. The trio of moviegoers-turned-characters, knowing that an atomic bomb drops on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, try to save lives even as they understand the impossibility of stopping history. It’s here that onscreen passages of poems from legendary poet Chuya Nakahara, verse that amplified the frenzy of the first two hours, take on the task of elegy as the film slows to a graceful, moving finale.

If this sounds like too much for one filmmaker to tackle tonally — as “Duck Amuck” meets the most horrifying of historical tragedies — it would be for almost anyone who wasn’t Obayashi. He possessed a unique ability to throw his films into the deep and remain buoyant, as darkness gives way to light, and comedy comes to the rescue.

Obayashi’s fervent belief in the activating power of cinema is the moral that shapes “Labyrinth.” (A pointed line of dialogue: “If we just watch, nothing will change!”) And it propels the filmmaker as he competes with himself for your attention, conducting a wild seminar about movies and life and war and peace, making a party out of sorrow, grabbing your fear and shaking it until it laughs and cries all at once.

“Labyrinth of Cinema” opens in New York Oct. 20 and Los Angeles Oct. 29.