Neo Tokyo – Labyrinth Labyrinthos

I’d like to start off by saying that I’m not much of a fan of standard academic-style criticism, wherein the writer attempts to bedazzle the reader with their intelligence and depth of insight, or to gain respectability by showing off their degree of political sensitivity. The fact is, I was driven to write something about this short film because I watched it and it moved me in a particular way. This isn’t an attempt to convince the reader that my interpretation of the film is the only valid one, or to draw support for any political position. I’d simply like to share with you something that resonated with me, and perhaps by doing so I can add a small bit of enjoyment to your experience of the world.

Neo Tokyo, the larger film containing this smaller one, was a 1987 collaboration of three major anime directors: Rintaro, Yoshiaki Kawajiri, and Katsuhiru Otomo. Otomo is definitely the most famous of the three in the West. Even though most English-speakers don’t know his name, many are familiar with his work on Akira. Kawajiri is known for directing Ninja Scroll, which was a cult hit in the 1990s, and for some other artsy action films that have enjoyed underground popularity here. Rintaro is the odd man out, being quite famous in Japan but practically unknown by name in America. His 2001 film Metropolis got some attention when it was released here, but most of his major works are obscure, despite some of them having near-legendary status in Japan (Captain Harlock and Galaxy Express 999 especially).

And that’s all I know about Rintaro, really. I’m rather inexperienced with his output, so I went into Labyrinth Labyrinthos without any expectations. It’s the first of the three films in Neo Tokyo, and acts as a meta-narrative framing device, setting up the viewing of the other two films and then coming back at the very end with a brief finale.

After a rather mysterious and foreboding entrance, the film has its true beginning in a desolate landscape, seemingly post-apocalyptic; towering abandoned structures behind what looks like the remains of a giant dome or egg. Inside this cracked egg, slumped and faintly luminescent, is a circus tent that has seen better days. The colored lights on the sign above its entrance still flash, though it seems long-abandoned, and the wind tears at the tentflaps, ripping off a piece of the fabric and whisking it away. All the while, a young girl calls out for her cat. “Cicerone, where are you?” In the background, “Gymnopédies No. 1″  plays: a fairly famous and contemplative piece of classical music by Erik Satie.

The scene changes, and we see our first glimpse of our protagonist, Sachi. She comes into being amorphously, a creature of animated whimsy. A flickering black morass slowly shapes itself into her silhouette, standing before a blood-red backdrop flecked with whirling red and white petals, or perhaps sparks. Eerie Noh chanting pipes in, and she shapes herself into elegant poses, looking as fierce as a kabuki actor, comically clad in what seem to be a cinched-up pair of her father’s trousers and a red and white striped shirt. A big fluffy black and white cat mrowls and runs though a seemingly endless hallway of her house, the bell around his neck jingling as the hallway’s lines of perspective constantly shift.

Then we cut to Sachi’s mother’s hands, furiously chopping dry noodles, heavy focus given to her red lacquered fingernails. Sachi sits beneath the kitchen counter, toying with a tube of her mother’s lipstick that pulses with a red glow as she twists it in and out. She seems to grasp that this is a powerful transformative object, but rather than playing at being a sexy lady like her mother, she marks her cheeks with red whiskers. A clock’s heavy pendulum swings in the background. She glances up at her mother, and the pendulum swings again.

Then she’s off, bursting through a rice paper screen and bounding up the stairs, where at the top she stands before an enormous grandfather clock. Tick, tock, tick, tock. She stares at the pendulum and her own reflection with an unamused expression, and then, with a shock of recognition, she finds the cat. Now it is her turn to hide, and our turn to follow him, Cicerone.

From the cat’s perspective, the old house comes alive. A window flies open and the sparkblossoms fly in, gossamer curtains billowing in the wind. An old teddy bear on a chair, covered with newspaper and red ribbons, seems strangely menacing. All the baroque fixtures of the place, toys and a fan and a wind-up musical clown, a bag of marbles and an old record player, all come alive and menace our poor feline. Then a mechanical biplane strikes a carving of a woman up on a dresser, and it flips. All goes silent as a mirror is revealed, and then Sachi laughs. She is inside the mirror, Alice through the looking glass. “Come here, Cicerone.” The cat reluctantly follows and is sucked in, then the mirror flips back. The mechanical clown has vanished from his music box. Sachi’s mother calls out for her, in a bored, distracted way.

What was already a heavily surreal film now crosses over into total dream territory. The first thing we see is the clown, now a man, smiling at us charismatically and dancing as he erects around himself a daylight world of narrow alleyways with flat wooden fences. Then he prances off and beckons Sachi and Cicerone to follow him. They both gladly do, and they encounter a strangely animated tin can, then ghostly masked children at play, and a disembodied dog with a hovering collar. Sachi and Cicerone seem out of place with all of these things. The clown beckons them on further.

They round a corner and now it is darker, twilight, and rough working-class people walk past the girl and her cat, their forms stooped and their bodies lacking color, heavily shaded and flickering as if half-remembered. An imposing mail-carrier passes by, then suddenly his form snaps into a cardboard cutout, a parody of a shadow of a man, and he tumbles into the other people, all of them cutouts now. They all fall down like dominoes, which our two travelers seem to find sad but somewhat funny. Sachi shrugs and giggles. Then the cardboard people burst into ink-black ooze, crawling up the walls, a nasty dark slick over everything. Abruptly, the sun sets, a lone streetlight blinking on.

And now Sachi is running for her life, from a train full of red skeletons, their bones making lurid xylophone music as she jumps to the side and they pass by. She looks truly taken aback by what she’s just seen. Then comes a parade of identical men in suits, hop-marching forward and chanting Satchan, Satchan, Satchan, Satchan (an intimate form of her name). On the back of all of their heads are ticking clocks, pendulums swinging. She watches them go, not knowing what to think.

Now again we see the clown, flickering briefly, and a poster for the circus. Circus music begins, and a procession of gargantuan lit-up beings walks above the strange alleyway-world, dropping more cirus flyers. A surreal chase that looks like it came from a video game follows, the alleyways turned blue and full of vertical scan lines, the clown’s shadow ever just out of reach and around another corner, signs with hands pointing where to go.

At the end of “Neko-machi Alley” (cat and Sachi alley, perhaps?) our heroes finally catch up with the clown. He presents to them a large wooden door, its surface inscribed with the same female carving that was on the opposite side of Sachi’s mirror. Light bursts forth from it at his touch, and a larger-than-life mirror is revealed. Of course, they all hop in.

What’s on the other side? It’s that lonely, dilapidated circus tent from the beginning of the film, sitting in its strange shattered world. The lights flash and the tent flaps ripple in the wind. The clown is smiling, proud, and with a grand gesture he welcomes them in. Sachi looks at him uncertainly and he points inside, eyes glittering. He looks rougher up-close now, the clown, like he’s been doing this for a long time. You can see his ears aren’t painted. “Here, come in, you two,” a sudden title card says, a silent film fragment that seems incredibly appropriate. Sachi and Cicerone amble in, and the clown closes the flap behind them, looking happy and excited. Time for the show to begin!

The girl and her cat walk to the center of the ring, and a spotlight bursts from the ceiling, blue fairy dust scattering on the floor. They look up into the light, impassive. Then the spotlight moves forward, towards red curtains, and they slowly open…

And that’s the end. Or rather, the beginning of Yoshiaki Kawajiri’s segment in Neo Tokyo. It really could be any piece of art, though, or any animated film, that follows the opening of those curtains. It seems to me that this seemingly obtuse and very surreal little film has some well-thought-out and very heavy philosophy behind it. A philosophy about magic, imagination and childhood, but also about the meaning of life and the purpose of art.

Sachi glides through the world, in the enchanted stage of her childhood where the dead certainties of reality have not set in, and where she truly sees things as they are rather than seeing things and immediately referring them to preconceived mental categories. Her world is not broken down into boxes, labeled and sorted and left for dead. The family’s creaky old house is alive to her, and alive to her through Cicerone, in a way that such a place can only be to a kid. The house reminded me of visiting the home of an old lady where my sister once took piano lessons, where I was left alone for hours and where there was a mysterious English-style back garden and a room full of old leather-bound musty books, things that gave me a direct sense of antiquity that would be lost to me now even if I went in looking for it directly. For Sachi, the mystery is alive, and she has only a dim sense of the many walls and rules that await her in the adult world.

All throughout her journey, the clock is ticking, and we’re continuously reminded of this by the pendulums. Her childhood will only last so long. We can see vague threats of her becoming mundane and detached like her mother, worn down by physical labor and plodding through the world like the cardboard working-class people, and then, eventually, dead; one of the red skeletons on the train. The men with the clocks on the backs of their heads, doing their ritual marching dance and calling out her name, are a blatant reminder. Come and join us, Satchan. Sooner or later, you will be one of us.

This would all be very bleak, if it weren’t for the clown. I think it’s important that he’s shown to be old, a bit worn down himself, but somehow still in possession of that childhood spark, an elegance and an appreciation for the visceral side of reality that seems to be lacking in the other adult characters. The clown is an artist. He lives for his work, while the others work to live.

I think this is the real message behind Labyrinth Labyrinthos, if it was indeed intended to have one. The animation is so rich and fluid, done “on the ones” as they say in the industry, meaning an actual 24 frames per second, rather than 12 frames which are doubled. Everything about the film oozes love for animation itself, style and form and grace of movement, the subtle techniques of the master artist. Rintaro and his fellow animators seem to be saying, “here, look, this is why we’re alive. Because we can create something beautiful like this.” It’s both an answer to an ancient philosophical question and a bold statement about need for art in our industrialized, mechanized and increasingly put-in-a-box world. Art provides meaning.

When the show is over, after watching Kawajiri’s Running Man and Otomo’s The Order to Stop Construction (both of which are magnificent, but I don’t have room to discuss them here), the red curtains appear again and the clown bursts out with a crackle of fireworks. He poses, goofy and happy. Didn’t you enjoy the show? Sachi and Cicerone give him some applause. The clown waves his hands around and takes a bow, pixie dust drifting from his fingers. Then he kicks out a leg, and the thin line of his shadow gurgles up like tar, growing eyeballs and appendages. He scatters more dust with an arm and the same thing happens to the rest of his shadow, viscous liquid popping and churning, the abstract darkness of an absence of light coming to life through pure creative magic.

Fireworks break out above as Sachi and Cicerone look on, slack-jawed and amazed, and the shadow-slime beings, clad in fabics of many colors, slide along in a grand parade. Goblins and lizards careen through the air doing circus tricks, while the whole procession goes around the ring and more fireworks explode. Sachi taps her foot happily to the music, and the animators just go wild with these creatures, bending their faces like putty and reveling in their grotesque forms. A half-dozen creepy-crawly arms reach out for Sachi, and she jumps up into their embrace, overjoyed, latching onto the shoulders of the clown as a the fireworks go crazy. The whole big ghoulie group leaves the tent and they march along, Sachi riding on high, twirling and looking as happy as she could possibly be, and the music stops as she looks into the camera with a great big smile.

Then, gradually, we pan out, and see Sachi and Cicerone, who have been watching all of this on a nice big 1980s TV with a good sound system as they are floating through space, backed by peals of eerie laughter. At first, I didn’t realize why Rintaro did this. It seems like an arbitrarily artsy ending. But then it hit me, joyously: he’s reminding the viewer that they are part of this experience, and reminding them that fiction works as an art form because, for a while, you become someone else. He’s saying, “Sachi is you! You’re that kid. Maybe you’re old now, but deep down, that part of you is still there. Don’t forget to use your imagination, and to appreciate the world like this.”

At least, that’s what it seems like to me. In any case, Labyrinth Labyrinthos made me feel happy to be alive, and greatly reaffirmed my desire to create and experience art. I hope a bit of that elation has rubbed off on you, too.

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4 Responses to Neo Tokyo – Labyrinth Labyrinthos

  1. beatobongco says:

    I just finished watching Neo Tokyo and couldn’t explain my feelings whilst watching the first segment. I felt nostalgia and sadness at the same time but couldn’t put a finger on why. What you have posted was a perfect explanation that gave form to those emotions. I feel like it is reminding us of that boundless creativity, zest and love for life that only a child can have, virtues that slowly bleed out of us as we grow older and more accustomed to the “real world” where people live nine-to-five lives. Slowly, slowly, our vibrant world loses color and becomes as dark and dreary as a noir film as we also lose other childhood traits like innocence, kindness without agenda, hope, pure love, the ability to dream wildly while still being present “here” entirely, with every fiber of our being, enjoying each moment as our wonderful imaginations perceive it.

    I felt sadness in the end, when I found myself watching Sachi watching TV, the camera zooming out and the cave’s mouth closing – a grim reminder that we cannot go back in time, that that chapter of our lives is forever closed. This is accentuated by the unsettling laugh that seemed to mock me. But then the music in the end which overpowers the churning slime sounds seems to give a glimmer of hope that despite our reality of being part of this mundane world, there inside us resides the ability to rediscover that spark of creativity that we possessed once.

    Thanks for this! I immensely enjoyed the whole experience of Neo Tokyo, though I admit it was a challenge, and wish artists took more time to make art like this even though the mainstream audience demands mindless blockbuster explosions and run-off-the-mill plots.

    • Lance says:

      Hey, thanks for the reply! It makes me happy to know that someone else got the same feeling from this film that I did, and that my writing helped to crystallize that feeling.

      I think it’s a powerful film because it does raise that question of whether it’s possible to live one’s life in a pure and uncalculating way, like Sachi does. It’s interesting that most people who think of themselves as “realists” would disagree with that idea or see it as a regression, and, as you said, it calls to mind that phrase we so commonly use: “the real world.” It seems we often use that phrase in a rather dismissive way, implying that all of the toil and drudgery and unpleasant mechanical activities we have to deal with as autonomous adults preclude our ability to interact with reality without excessive filtering; without lots of thinking about everything we see. “The real world” is never a pleasant place, or a place that is mysterious and open for exploration. It’s a place one has to endure.

      For a lot of people, it may not be possible to escape this kind of mindset, for various reasons. But I think this film itself is proof that adults can exist in different modes. After all, Rintaro was 46 years old when he directed it, and most of the animators were probably in their late 20s or 30s. Despite the ages of everyone involved, it manages to capture that spark of childhood present-ness so well that it’s almost eerie. I don’t doubt that much of the animation work was done in what psychology calls a “state of flow,” the same state that is sought in martial arts and in meditation, and which all athletes must be in to perform at their best. Creative people and people who are attuned to their bodies seem much more able to exist in the present moment, like a child, than most other adult human beings. Of course, it’s hard to be in this kind of a state all the time, and even children have times when they get caught up on something. It’s just a lot easier for them to let go, because the world is so exciting to them and they have so much to discover.

      As for what you said about challenging art in movies, I think the problem nowadays is that both Japan and America are much less willing to take financial risks, especially with well-funded productions. There are a lot of sequels and superhero movies and adaptations of previously successful material, but not a lot of things like Neo Tokyo. I haven’t given up hope, though. 🙂

      • beatobongco says:

        I really like how you’ve connected the discussion to the psychological concept of “flow”. Children live in a constant state of flow, of living completely in the present. To them, the world is just so interesting that they forget that they have to be in bed by 9pm or that they scraped their knee yesterday. They lose the sense of past and future. For them, there is only now, because now is so much more interesting than yesterday or tomorrow. Even if they do not know it yet, they are doing it completely right since philosophically, now is the only moment we truly own. As Heraclitus said, a man never steps in the same river twice because he is a different man and it is a different river.

        As for the realists, I think they are doing it wrong. (So does Rintaro evidenced by the way he portrays, as you’ve pointed out, the cardboard salarymen with life-timers on their backs) Life should not be “endured”. That would be a terrible waste because the only two things I know is that I am here and there is no assurance of an afterlife (nor the assurance of the absence of one). Life should be enjoyed.

        Also, thank you for supplying the information about Rintaro’s age. It opens up yet another dimension to this piece of art. Perhaps it is his nostalgia we are feeling in Sachi, or maybe he is the old clown. We will never know.

        P.S.: Something off-topic but slightly interesting: The funny thing about art is that most of the time we will never know what the artist’s true intentions were when he designs a work of art. Most don’t bother telling. For all you know, we are both completely off-track in our analysis. But I think that matters not, as good art allows the audience to find their own meanings.

  2. Lance says:

    I really like that Heraclitus quote! Especially how it emphasizes that both the man and the river have changed.

    I think it’s an interesting observation you made that children don’t realize that they’re “doing it right.” Perhaps that is part of the reason that they can experience the world like that so easily and automatically, because they do not yet understand the alternative of seeing the world through shorthand, and in fact are not even capable of it. They haven’t yet stored up enough experiences to, for example, default any dog they see to the category of “dog.” To them a dog is still a mysterious, marvelous, alien thing. And that is why their worlds are so magical, like Sachi in the movie. There is always a direct relationship between magic and mystery.

    I got onto the tangent about flow and existing in the present because I’ve been reading a book called “The Inner Game of Tennis” the last few days. I’ve been into Eastern ideas of Zen and “stilling the mind” and etc for a while now, mostly because of Alan Watts, but this book is very interesting because it’s a practical, direct guide to getting yourself into a state of flow, as explored through the medium of tennis. Near the beginning it has a quote from the Zen philosopher D.T. Suzuki: “Man is a thinking reed but his great works are done when he is not calculating and thinking. ‘Childlikeness’ has to be restored…”

    I think that’s what great artists, musicians, animators, and even writers tend to be capable of. I read an article on the brain science behind the creative state recently, where they put musicians into MRIs and got them to improvise, and apparently the lobes of the brain function during creative activity in a different combination than any other state. It talked about how people in a state of flow often describe their actions as “happening to them” rather than being produced by them, and how that relates to this odd configuration of brain activity. I don’t have any proof, but I would suspect that the activities of the brain during meditation can’t be too far off from this.

    You are right that we might be wrong about what Rintaro intended to express with this film, but another interesting thing about art is that often it expresses things that the creator did not intend to show. Another aspect of the “happening to me” vs “I’m doing it” dichotomy, perhaps. I’ve noticed this in my own fiction before. I think we can be fairly certain that this was a film about childhood, though. 🙂

    Btw, do you have a blog or anything like that?

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