Sogo Ishii can be best described as the old school punk rock director. Though pushing 45 years old, he has more energy, experimentalism, and 'fuck the rules' type attitude in his films than a man his age would be expected to have. Coming from a background of 8mm films - something he has never forgotten - his works almost without question embrace supposed mistakes in the filmmaking process and turn them into part of the movie. Ishii's films are often gritty and the viewer occasionally feels that the camera was accidentally left on or knocked over.
The thing is, his films have a texture to them - a feeling. And the attention to pattern as form and lyricism is definitely what makes them special. Basically, his films look great. Labyrinth of Dreams is no exception, but style cannot replace substance.
One of the problems with the film is that the narrative is not terribly interesting and poorly realized, as we see with the basic plot premise. Tomiko (Rena Komine) is a young bus conductor working in a small town in prewar Japan. When she is teamed up with the handsome bus driver Niitaka (Tadanobu Asano), whose previous conductor-partners have all been killed in traffic accidents, she feels that the rumors circulating among the bus conductors could be true; Niitaka might be a serial killer. Initially Tomiko is intent on proving this and chooses to do so through feigning love for Niitaka - unfortunately, Tomiko gets in too deep and actually falls in love with him. As it becomes less and less clear what course of action she should take, she tries to vent her frustrations by sending letter warnings to her country bumpkin friend Chieko that becoming a bus conductor is a 'horrible thing to do.' And with this the end plods forward and the inevitable becomes real.
While the concept of the film is there it becomes clear after the first 10 minutes that Sogo Ishii is at a loss for what to do. He has found himself in a conundrum: the story is trapped on a bus and it cannot get off. How do you increase the odds? This is compounded by the fact that Ishii seems to be afraid to actually put any of the characters in true danger. The stakes are never raised very high and the best scene in the film involving Niitaka and Tomiko having a 'Mexican stand-off' with two poison glasses of wine seems like a good Hitchcockian moment, but unfortunately fizzles out and the tension that was generated ends up being horribly squandered. This is partly due to bad acting and bad directing, but the main culprit would be bad writing; there just isn't anything here to work with.
What's worse is that Sogo Ishii knows this and so has tried to hide it through some editing slight-of-hand: he turns the structure all around and mixes it up. Regretfully, this only confuses the audience and does not improve the story. Furthermore there is at least one portion where he cheats as a director, sharing some information that acts as a red herring to forestall our understanding as a viewer.
So is the film really that bad? Well, no. The cinematography is amazing. The beginning is very effective and periodically there are really good moments where everything clicks. But it needs more then that. It's hard to believe that he did Labyrinth of Dreams after the amazing Angel Dust. As one of my friends who saw the film said to me when asked about Sogo Ishii, "Oh, I thought that was a good first film effort."