Shuji Terayama is one of many Japanese filmmakers who remains almost wholly unrepresented in the West, much to our detriment. He created both experimental and “mainstream” cinema, the former best known through movies like Throw Away Your Books, Let’s Go Out into the Streets and the scandalous Emperor Tomato Ketchup. Most of his work was done under the auspices of the avant-garde Art Theatre Guild, and in doing so he collaborated with many staple countercultural figures from Japan’s Sixties and Seventies. But he’s never had much of his work issued domestically. When his movies are seen at all, they’re usually in the form of blurry bootlegs or tattered prints screened at private showings. To that end, whenever any of his movies show up in English-language editions at all, it’s something to celebrate.
Grass Labyrinth might qualify as one of his most widely-seen films, since it was released both on its own and as part of the anthology production Private Collections. That film also contained shorts by Just Jaeckin (he of Gwendoline and Emmanuelle infamy) and Walerian (The Beast) Borowczyk, which is why it is linked to this review in lieu of a standalone edition. And since the U.S. DVD of that film is the only decent way to see Labyrinth I was initially inclined to review all three at once — but Terayama’s movie so far overshadowed the others, I decided a review of Labyrinth alone would be more than worth it.
The haunting memory of a childhood "bouncing ball song" draws Akira back into
the labyrinth of his childhood and his mother's desires, where great and terrible things await him.
Labyrinth evokes several things that surface time and again in many of Terayama’s other films: a sense of great and sad nostalgia; a deep-seated ambivalence about sexuality; and kind of nightmarish dread that a child feels for the world’s cruelty and indifference. It stars Takeshi Wakamatsu, later of Sogo Ishii’s Angel Dust, as Akira, a young man in Taisho-era Japan (i.e., immediately before WWII) who has developed an obsession with the lyrics to a strange “bouncing-ball song” that his mother used to sing to him. He has little hope of finding his mother again to have her explain it, as she sunk into madness and disappeared years ago, and so he pulls on his cap and sandals and sets off through the landscape of his past to find the answers.
He wanders, and remembers. He remembers the madwoman, a girl roughly his age, imprisoned in a barn not far from their house, who introduced him to sex and — without realizing it — inspired his own mother’s possessive jealousy over him. He remembers how she ran off with a war deserter and drowned herself in the ocean when she couldn’t be with him. He remembers the Buddhist monk he turned to for answers, but who had none and spoke instead only in obscurantist abstractions that did not touch him. He remembers the prostitute whom he thought looked like his mother, and who seemed to know the words to the same song.
His quest for the origin of the song becomes his indoctrination into the adult world,
both sexually and spiritually ... which requires that he leave his all-consuming mother behind.
More than anything else, of course, he remembers his mother — the original seducer, if you hew closely to the movie’s fairly blatant Freudian psychology — and how in trying to break free from her he wound up simply coming full circle with his desires. In the end, he is inspired to wander all the more — although perhaps not only to find the answer to just this one mystery, but to become that more complete a person in the arms of the rest of the world. The overall mood of the film is despairing, but so arrestingly lovely the despair ultimately feels like only one signpost on the road of Akira’s life.
Even if you find the psychology heavy-handed or the symbology obscure, you don’t need either of those things to find the film compelling. Every shot, and I mean every shot in Labyrinth, blazes with color and artful visualizations of totems from Akira’s life. Here, a “fertility stone” (with which he unwittingly makes his own mother pregnant); there, a paper ball bounced by a seductive-looking young girl who leads him nowhere, again and again. Even when Terayama was working in stark black and white (as he did with Ketchup) he found a way to make everything look dreamy and mystical. Here, in color, it’s a whole order of magnitude more bewitching. Fans of manga artists Suehiro Maruo or Tsuge Yoshiharu might see how the same subconscious of Japanese visual tropes that they mined, both gorgeous and grotesque, are also on display here.
The real star of the film is Terayama's blazing and disturbing imagery, even
more so than the story's explicitly Freudian and autobiographical overtones.
I saw Labyrinth for the first time under the worst possible circumstances: a crude VHS copy which included copies of Emperor Tomato Ketchup and a number of other Terayama shorts. The images spellbound me despite the wretched transfer, and I never forgot them; in fact, they were among the chief inspirations that fueled me when I sat down to write my novel Summerworld late last year. And now that I’ve watched it again in an excellent-quality DVD edition, I find myself all the more tantalized: I hope we can all get to see the rest of this man’s delirious and disturbing filmmaking without having to wait for a film festival or pay for a bootleg.