Nobuhiko Ôbayashi’s final film, suffused with trick photography, has a humanist soul

Labyrinth of Cinema, opening at San Francisco’s Roxie Theater on Friday, is a fitting finale to an underappreciated auteur’s career.

Labyrinth of Cinema. Credit: Crescendo House

I really should have known better: Last week, I waxed enthusiastic about I’m An Electric Lampshade, boldly dubbing it my favorite film of 2021. A week later, it’s time to move the lampshade aside: Director Nobuhiko Ôbayashi’s Labyrinth of Cinema (opening at San Francisco’s Roxie Theater on Friday, Nov. 4) has abruptly but decisively displaced it atop my list.

Nobuhiko Ôbayashi was born in 1938 and began making 8mm films as a child. His 1963 short subject, The Person Who Ate, won the Jury Prize at the Belgian International Experimental Film Festival, after which he embarked upon a lengthy and wildly successful career directing television commercials, many featuring American actors such as Kirk Douglas, Charles Bronson and John Fiedler.

Ôbayashi waited more than a decade to direct his first feature length film, Hausu (House), the story of which was apparently suggested to him by his 7-year-old daughter. Indeed, there’s a childlike non-logic at work throughout that film, along with evidence of the director’s 8mm “Monster Kid” roots and — perhaps most perversely — his gauzy, colorful and determinedly cinematic commercial work.

Like House, Labyrinth of Cinema is suffused with primitive and sophisticated trick photography that would make Don Glut proud, including stop-motion and traditional animation, screen wipes, superimpositions, gels, strobe editing, iris ins and outs, wire work, fish eye lenses, and some truly amazing glass matte paintings.

Sadly, Labyrinth will stand as Ôbayashi’s final work. Though undergoing treatment for stage 4 lung cancer, he managed to complete the three-hour long feature before his death last April. The result is both a stunning stand-alone accomplishment and a worthy career capstone.

Inspired by the poetry of Chūya Nakahara — the “Japanese Rimbaud”, according to WikipediaLabyrinth of Cinema is, effectively, a martial history of Japan. Establishing its thesis that “movies are a cutting edge time machine,” the story focuses on four young cineastes attending the final night at a family-run movie house. Pulled out of the audience and into the screen, the quartet become enmeshed within a series of Japanese historical epics as they unspool in front of a full house of nostalgic moviegoers.

Yes, it sounds like Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo, but Ôbayashi’s intentions are much loftier than the Woodman’s: His goal is to amplify the lies told by the powerful and the truths magnified by art. There are times when this profoundly humanist film is almost too painfully sad to watch, but there is also old-fashioned romance, broad humor and a deep knowledge of cinema (watch for references to the works of William Castle, Jean Cocteau, Sam Fuller, Akira Kurosawa, Yasujirō Ozu, and probably others I missed).

Concluding with a dedication “to young people who want a future free of war,” it’s an absolutely glorious way to spend an evening. I suggest, unironically, that you see it with someone you love.

How They Got Over. Credit: One State Films

Currently playing at Rialto Cinemas Elmwood, How They Got Over was finished three years ago but has only now been released. Why it sat in the can this long is beyond me, as it’s an outstanding and uplifting examination of the rise and fall of the African-American gospel quartets of the mid-20th century.

A wealth of absolutely incredible performance footage from the likes of the Blind Boys of Alabama, the Gospel QCs, and Sister Rosetta Tharpe enliven this stellar documentary, along with interview footage of gospel veterans — many now deceased — such as Otis Clay, Dennis Edwards, and Clarence Fountain. The result is a terrific tribute to the sanctified music that made both secular soul and rock ’n’ roll possible.

John Seal has lived in Oakland since 1981 and has been writing for Berkeleyside since 2009. He spends his spare time watching and reading about movies.