Labyrinth of Cinema (海辺の映画館-キネマの玉手箱, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 2019)

“A movie can change the future, if not the past” according to the newly reawakened youngsters at the centre of Nobuhiko Obayashi’s final feature, Labyrinth of Cinema (海辺の映画館-キネマの玉手箱, Umibe no Eigakan – Kinema no Tamatebako). Continuing the themes present in Hanagatami, Labyrinth of Cinema takes us on a dark and twisting journey through the history of warfare in Japan as mediated by the movies with the poet Chuya Nakahara as our absent prophet reminding us that “dark clouds gather behind humanity” but that we need not feel as powerless as Nakahara once did for there are things to which our hands can turn. 

As the intergalactic narrator, Fanta G (Yukihiro Takahashi), explains the “present” of this film is our own but we find ourselves once again in Obayashi’s hometown of Onomichi where the local cinema is about to play its final show, a programme dedicated to the war films of Japan. Torrential rain has ensured a good audience, including three variously interested young men – cinephile Mario Baba (Takuro Atsuki), monk’s son Shigure (Yoshihiko Hosoda) who fancies himself a Showa-era yakuza, and “film history maniac” Hosuke (Takahito Hosoyamada). Noriko (Rei Yoshida), a teenage girl in sailor suit who only appears in blue-tinted monochrome, opens the show with a ‘40s folksong but soon disappears into the screen, followed by the three men who become the guardians and protectors of her image as they attempt to safeguard her existence through various scenes of historical carnage.

Noriko, the embodiment of a more innocent Japan, insists that “all you need is movies” and that she wants them to teach her of the things she does not know, most pressingly the nature of war. She enters the movies to find out who she is as we too peek into the soul of the nation, spinning back to the years of peace under the Tokugawa shogunate later juxtaposed with those of wartime nationalism in which “overseas” had become synonymous with adventure and opportunity, if perhaps darkly so in enabling the advance of Japanese imperialism. 

The three heroes find themselves literally immersed in cinema, pulled in by the great empathy machine to experience for themselves that which they could only previously imagine. Yet like the narrator of Nakahara’s poem they find themselves powerless, defined by their status as “members of the audience” even as their identities begin to blur with those of the various protagonists with whom they are being asked to identify. They attempt to protect the image of Noriko wherever they find her, even as a young Chinese woman orphaned by Japanese atrocity, but largely fail, unable to alter the course of history as mere spectators bound by the narrative rules of cinema. 

Yet sitting in front of the cinema screen convinces them that “movies demand I do something with my life”. Fanta G explains away the Meiji-era mentality with the claim that “people in power always punish freedom with death”, concluding that one man cannot change the system in the various assassinations of the revolutionaries trying to determine the future course of a nation, but insists on the right of all to be free to live their present and their future. The men learn that though they are powerless in the face of history, they have the power to craft their own happy ending but only if they abandon their identities as “members of the audience” in the knowledge that “if we just watch nothing will change”. 

With a deliberately theatrical artifice, trademark colour play, and surrealist imagery Obayashi wanders through 100 years of Japanese cinema with jidaigeki silents giving way to Masahiro Makino musicals and they in turn to the Hollywood-influenced song and dance of the immediate post-war era which was itself in the eyes of Fanta G an attempt to avert ones eyes from the horrors of the recent past but also a “lie” which carried its own kind of truth. The image of “Noriko” remains burned into the cinema screen, the movies the sole repository of the soul of Japan, though perhaps a Japan which no longer knows itself. “As long as I remember you, you’ll live” another bystander claims, “that’s why I have to be here”, waiting in a movie theatre existing outside of time and home to the labyrinths of cinema in which are to be found the vaults of human empathy. “To young people who want a future where no one knows wars, we dedicate this movie with blessing and envy”, run the closing lines, “in order to achieve world peace there are many things our hands can turn to” if only we rediscover the will to turn them. 


Labyrinth of Cinema is available to stream in the US until July 30 as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Killing for the Prosecution (検察側の罪人, Masato Harada, 2018)

Killing for the Prosecution posterThe vagaries of the Japanese legal system have become a persistent preoccupation for anxious filmmakers keen to interrogate the continuing rightward shift of the contemporary society. Stretching right back into the post-war world, filmmakers from Yoji Yamada and Yoshitaro Nomura to the more contemporary Masayuki Suo and Gen Takahashi all had their questions to ask about the courts system before Hirokazu Koreeda pushed the dialogue in a slightly different direction with the probing The Third Murder. Killing for the Prosecution (検察側の罪人, Kensatsugawa no Zainin) picks up Koreeda’s baton and brings with it all the baggage of the aforementioned films in asking similar questions about the nature of justice and most particularly within the context of Japan under the conservative government of Shinzo Abe.

In the contemporary era, rookie prosector Okino (Kazunari Ninomiya) gets a prime Tokyo job working for his mentor Mogami (Takuya Kimura) which begins with investigating a bloody double murder of an elderly couple who were apparently running an illicit side business in usurious loans. The suspect list includes a series of shady characters, but one catches Mogami’s eye – Matsukura (Yoshi Sako), a man arrested and subsequently released in relation to a brutal murder of a school girl Mogami had known and liked while he was a student. Unable to let the case rest, Mogami finds himself fixated on the idea of nailing Matsukura for the pensioner murder in order to get justice for the previous killing which has now passed the statute of limitations.

Meanwhile, Mogami himself is also embroiled in a conspiracy surrounding an old friend, Tanno (Takehiro Hira), now a senator accused of corruption. Harada opens with a brief prologue set during Okino’s final pre-graduation briefing in which Mogami offers a somewhat cynical lecture on the role of the prosecution and the nature of justice. Like the lawyers at the centre of The Third Murder, he is keen to emphasise that the truth is rarely relevant in the face of the law and that justice is a game won by constructing impenetrable narrative. He insists that “there is no such thing as rain which washes away guilt”. Yet his love of justice is so fierce that he collects and displays gavels – a complicated symbol seeing as Japan doesn’t use them but like many other countries has internalised an association with them thanks to American movies.

America, in itself, becomes a complicated facet of Mogami’s judicial confusion as he finds himself pulled between left and right. In his meetings with Tanno, we originally find him complicit with the regime, presumably acting to protect his friend and thereby enabling his corruption but we later come to realise that the opposite is true – that the pair of them are complicit in the system in order to undermine it. Tanno, apparently disillusioned with right wing politics and committed to pacifist ideals, attempted to blow the whistle on systemic political corruption and has been hung out to dry. Lamenting that there is no press freedom in Japan, he has been unsuccessful in his attempts to frustrate a persistent shift towards remilitarisation (apparently hastened by his own wife who has embarrassingly enough been photographed at a neo-nazi rally) but coldly cuts off Mogami’s offer of further assistance by reminding him that he too is “part of the system”.

Mogami goes rogue, but he does so more for reasons of personal vengeance than pursuit of justice. Desperate to nail Matsukura he begins to bend his narrative while his earnest rookie underling, Okino, remains conflicted about his boss’ increasingly suspicious behaviour. Yet the possibility remains, if Matsukura didn’t do it someone else did. If Mogami has Matsukura pay for this crime rather than another one, perhaps a kind of justice is served but a dangerous man would still be out there. In the end, Mogami transgresses in pursuit of his own kind of justice becoming the kind of “criminal” prosecutor he cautioned Okino against becoming in his already cynical opening speech.

That aside, Mogami ties his crimes to a long history of injustice and oppression in allusion to his grandfather’s accidental survival of the battle of Imphal thanks to a kind of purgatorial space known as “Hotel Tanang” to which he returns in an oddly surreal dream sequence which places himself and Tanno as descendants of men who refused to die for oppressive imperialistic concerns. The “Skeleton Road” buys him an uneasy alliance with a genial yakuza (Yutaka Matsushige) who provides another source of temptation to turn to the dark side, but the question he seems to be left with is whether it’s acceptable to pursue one’s own kind of justice in the knowledge that the justice system is inherently corrupt.

Okino, who might ordinarily be our hero, seems to say no but lacks the courage to resist – unlike his steadfast assistant, Saho (Yuriko Yoshitaka), who is combating injustice in her own though perhaps no more ethical (and still less than altruistic) ways. “People die, things break, all the same”, Matsukura rambles as if to lay bare the film’s nihilistic leanings as it points out a litany of seemingly irreparable social ills. Mogami breaks cover for an instant when meeting with a police officer after overhearing a woman trying to press a rape charge and being rebuffed, stopping briefly on his way out to encourage her to keep pressing her case in solidarity with her solitary quest against a seemingly impenetrable wall of indifference, while the mild foreshadowing of a contemporary preoccupation about what to do with the problem of elderly drivers in an ageing society becomes an odd kind of punchline in a bleak existential joke. Dark and cynical, Killing for the Prosecution sees little cause for hope in the increasing murkiness of its constantly declining moral universe, finding release only in its final, frustrated scream.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Orange (orange-オレンジ, Kojiro Hashimoto, 2015)

Orange posterPerhaps it isn’t possible (or even desirable) to live a life without regrets, but given the opportunity who wouldn’t want a second chance to tackle some of those thorny adolescent moments where you said something you shouldn’t have or didn’t say something that perhaps should have been said. The heroine of Kojiro Hashimoto’s Orange (orange-オレンジ) gets exactly this opportunity when she receives a letter from her future self asking for her help in “erasing” some of her teenage regrets by using the information in the letter to save a friend she hasn’t yet met. Though the letter contains little information about the life she is leading ten years from now, it is clear that something happened all those years ago which has profoundly affected the lives of a tight group of high school friends.

16-year-old Naho (Tao Tsuchiya) receives the letter at the beginning of her second year of high school, reading it under the vibrant pink cherry blossoms. A little creeped out, she doesn’t read it fully but is surprised when, just as the letter said, a new student, Kakeru (Kento Yamazaki), transfers into her class and occupies the previously empty desk next to hers. A shy and quiet girl Naho is nevertheless part of a group of five friends which includes sportsman Suwa (Ryo Ryusei), geek Hagita (Dori Sakurada), and two other girls Takako (Hirona Yamazaki) and Azusa (Kurumi Shimizu). For reasons unexplained, the group quickly takes Kakeru into their fold only for him to suddenly disappear for a couple of weeks. On closer inspection of the letter, Naho is disturbed by the news that Kakeru is “no longer around” at the time of her future self’s writing.

Orange fits neatly into the popular tragic high school romance genre in which an older version of the protagonist looks back on a traumatic event and tries to come to terms with their own action or inaction in order to move forward with their adult lives. 26-year-old Naho, as we quickly find out, has moved on – she is married to Suwa and has a young son she has named Kakeru but she and the others are still finding it difficult to come to terms with what happened to their friend and the possibility that they could have done something more to help him if they’d only known then what they know now.

So far so “junai”, but Orange tries to have things both ways by introducing a slightly clumsy time travel/parallel universe theory in which the protagonists realise that they won’t be able to change the past but are hoping that their friend is happy in an alternate timeline created by their efforts to influence their younger selves with more mature thinking coupled with the benefit of hindsight. Unlike other examples of the genre, Orange undercuts the usual need to deal with the past and find closure through a mild fantasy of denial in which the older protagonists can believe in an alternate future in which they were able to do things differently and save their friend from his unhappy destiny.

Saving their friend is, however, only a secondary goal – the first being to ease their own sense of guilt in not having seen that Kakeru was in trouble and needed their help. All this emphasis on personal “regret” cannot help but seem somewhat solipsistic – everyone is very sorry about what happened in the past and wishes that they could have acted differently but is also somewhat preoccupied with their own role in events rather than a true desire to have in someway eased their friend’s suffering. Though there is the true selflessness of real, grown up love such as that displayed by Suwa who has always loved Naho but supports her love of Kakeru despite his own feelings, the actions of the group remain childishly goal orientated as Kakeru’s survival becomes an end mission flag rather than an expression of love and care for a friend in trouble.

The teenagers are, despite advice from their older selves, still teenagers and so it is only to be expected that they respond to a very grown up problem with a degree of immaturity, but it is also true that Kakeru’s ongoing, mostly well hidden, depression plays second fiddle to the various romantic subplots currently in action. Though the friends rally round with fairly trite phrases about helping to carry Kakeru’s burden and always being there him, Orange almost tries to argue that kind words are enough to pull a strained mind back from the brink – not that kind words ever hurt, but some problems are bigger than superficial pledges of friendship can handle especially when you’ve half a mind on who loves who and who is trying to get in the way of someone else’s romantic destiny. In spending so much time worrying about their friend, they have, in a sense, left him to deal with all his problems on his own while revelling in their own “concern”.

Superficial and melodramatic, Orange’s insistence on the power of teenage friendship can’t help but ring a little false and the parallel universe solution an overly convenient narrative device which allows for two differing resolutions both of which essentially frustrate the attempts of the older protagonists to accept their own sense of guilt and responsibility for their friend’s death in order to move on with their lives. Kakeru, in a sense, gets forgotten in his friends’ need to absolve themselves of his fate – a particularly ironic development in a cautionary tale about the enduring legacy of regret and the necessity of communicating one’s true feelings fully in the knowledge that there may not always be another opportunity to do so.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Hanagatami (花筐/HANAGATAMI, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 2017)

Hanagatami posterIn time the past becomes a dream. A world in and of itself, conjured from feeling and memory and painted in the imprecise strokes of one attempting to recreate a long forgotten scene. The melancholy heroes of Nobuhiko Obayashi’s long career were each trapped in a sense by nostalgia, a yearning for another time and place, or more precisely another, more innocent, version of themselves only with the benefit of hindsight and the confidence of age. Finally realising a long dreamt of project in dramatising Kazuo Dan’s classic wartime youth novel Hanagatami (花筐/HANAGATAMI), Obayashi reunites with another melancholy young man who as he puts it in the opening text wants to tell his story not out of a sense of nostalgia but out of longing for the things which were lost. Those like him who had the misfortune to be young before the war saw their whole world swept away by a kind of madness far beyond their control, losing not only a past but a future too.

When Toshihiko Sakakiyama (Shunsuke Kubozuka) returns home from Amsterdam where he had been living with his parents, Japan is already at war in China. Though the times are changing, Toshihiko’s life remains relatively untouched by conflict, insulated from the concerns of the day by the pleasant natural surroundings of his old-fashioned country town. Returning to the family estate presided over by his war-widow aunt, Keiko (Takako Tokiwa), Toshihiko strikes up a friendship with her sickly sister-in-law, Mina (Honoka Yahagi), whose proximity to death only seems to enhance her beauty. At school he finds himself caught between two polar opposites – the strong and silent Ukai (Shinnosuke Mitsushima) and the cynical nihilist Kira (Keishi Nagatsuka), while his two sets of social circles finally combine with the addition of Mina’s friends Akine (Hirona Yamazaki) and Chitose (Mugi Kadowaki) who also happens to be Kira’s cousin. The world is on the brink of ruin, but there are dances and picnics and festivals and everywhere everyone is desperate to live even in the midst of such foreboding.

Obayashi opens with a quote from one of Dan’s poems in which he mourns the flowers in full bloom shortly to be cut down in their prime. Hanagatami itself means “flower basket” but is also the title of a noh play about a woman driven mad by love for a man from whom she is separated by the arbitrary rules of her society. Japan itself has become a basket of flowers, offering up its youth on a senseless altar to political hubris while a generation attends its own funeral and becomes obsessed with the idea of permanence in a permanently uncertain world. Chitose carries about her camera, bitterly claiming that she will confer immortality on her subjects while privately longing for an end to her loneliness and suffering.

Like the heroine of the noh play, our protagonists too are driven mad by love as the madness of their times spurs them on and holds them back in equal measure. Mina, in all her etherial beauty, becomes the symbol of an age – innocence about die, drowned in its own blood. All in love with Mina, or perhaps with death itself, the men sink further into petty rivalries and conflicted friendships all the while staving off the inevitabilities of their times – that soon they too will be expected to sacrifice themselves for a cause they don’t believe in or risk being left behind alone.

Toshihiko finds himself torn between his two friends – the light and the dark, the robust Ukai and the gloomy Kira. While Toshihiko’s wide-eyed hero worship of Ukai and his idealised male physique takes on an inescapable homoerotic quality, his relationship with Kira leads him towards a darker path on which everything is “worthless” and all pleasures impossible in a world apparently so close to its end. Kira, having committed a truly heinous act, reminds his friends that they routinely kill and eat animals, and that one day they too will be gobbled up, swallowed whole by the cruelty of their times.

One by one the war takes them, if indirectly, leaving only Toshihiko behind. Describing his youth as like a game of hide and seek in which he suddenly realised it had gotten dark and all his friends had gone home, Toshihiko recasts his tale as a ghost story in which he remains haunted by the visions of his younger self and longs for his long absent friends, robbed of the futures promised to them by right of birth. Free floating through dreams and memory, Obayashi conjures an etherial world overshadowed by tragedy but coloured with wistful melancholy as pale-faced soldiers march off for the land of the dead while youth does its best to live all its tomorrows today in rejecting the senseless cruelty of its age.


Screened at Nippon Connection 2018.

Update July 2020: Hanagatami is released on UK blu-ray from Third Window Films on 6th July in a set which also includes a 20-minute making of and 35-minute interview with director Nobuhiko Obayashi.

Original trailer (no subtitles)