Labyrinth of Dreams (1997) by Sogo Ishii

Tomiko (Rena Komine) starts work as a bus conducter after the death of her friend Tsuyako (Tomoka Kurotani) who dies while working the same job. Tomiko is soon assigned as conductor alongside driver Niitaka (Tadanobu Asano), Tsuyako’s former boyfriend. Tomiko’s friend and fellow conductor Chieko (Kotomo Kyono) tells her that there is a rumour that Niitaka was responsible for Tsuyako’s death and the deaths of several other women. These suspicions are partially confirmed by a letter from Tsuyako delivered after her death that suggests Niitaka may be dangerous. Despite these warnings Tomiko begins a relationship with Niitaka.

Directed by Sogo Ishii and based on the novel by Kyuusaku Yumeno, “Labyrinth of Dreams” is a contemplative film that luxuriates in beautiful cinematography couresy of Norimichi Kasamatsu and subtle performances from its small cast. The character remain slightly out of reach of the viewer, appearing often as tragic archetypes. Rena Komine’s Tomiko is a young woman yearning for excitement, firm yet feminine, with hints that some darker thoughts may lie beneath the placid surface. Likewise, Tadanobu Asano’s Niitaka is something of a puzzle, seemingly caring for Tomiko, while at the same time teasing her, and with the lingering doubts about his past behaviour casting a dark shadow. The film offers few answers but the central riddle of Niitaka’s past and Tomiko’s fate is enough to keep you engaged. The film also includes abundent symbolism and subtext, with the train and bus taking on metaphorical importance, frequent shots of flowers, the sea, moths, dark tunnels and the appearance of buddhist monks and statues, all giving an indication that something momentous is being depicted, above and beyond the everyday relationship of the protagonist. The soundtrack by Hiroyuki Onogawa of resonant chimes creates an eerie atmosphere, speaking to the impending doom that is foreshadowed at the beginning of the film. The filmmakers also use silence to chilling effect, the sounds suddenly vanishing to leave the audience stranded in a world that is full of ambiguity and threat.

The film’s central relationship between Tomiko and Niitaka is thrilling to watch, and we are never quite sure what each has in their minds. Tomiko’s apparent lack of caution can be seen as a morality tale, but there is perhaps a more existential reading of the film with the buses symbolising the journey of life and the inevitability of death, also suggested by the appearance of buddhist monks and the dark tunnel with the oncoming light representing their end. Tomiko’s decision to begin a relationship with Niitaka is as unavoidable as her fate. The dangers for women in a male-dominated world are writ large in the film, but shown as something universal and unavoidable, asking questions about how much control we really have over our fate.

Good for Nothing (1960) by Yoshishige Yoshida

Ikuko Makino (Hizuru Takachiho) works as a secretary for Mr. Akiyama, whose son Toshio (Yusuke Kawazu) spends his days idling around town with his group of similarly aimless friends. Toshio and his friends, including college student Jun (Masahiko Tsugawa), pick up Ikuko and tell her they are going to rob her. After releasing her the group continue to torment her in various ways. However, Jun and Ikuko begin an awkward relationship, with Ikuko attracted to his carefree attitude towards life.

Written and directed by Yoshishige Yoshida, “Good-for-nothing” is a societal drama with tragic-romantic elements. The characters are interesting, typifying conflicting beliefs about the state of the Japanese economy. Mr. Akiyama is a successful businessman, ably negotiating his way past rivals and representative of the capitalist mindset of ever expanding profits. His son, Toshio, on the otherhand is spoiled, simply living off his father, and his friends in turn leeching off him. Jun, a poor student, is drawn in by Toshio, enraptured by the lifestyle of the young playboy, without a care in the world, seeing everything in life as a game to be enjoyed rather than striving for anything meaningful. Ikuko is in part trapped between these two worlds, longing for the freedom, financial and personal, of Toshio and his friends; while having to work for her living and become a productive member of society. She is strong-willed, capable, forthright, but perhaps conditioned by her environment, while she sees other possibilities in the complete rejection of society exemplified by Jun. The film plays out this contrast in differentiating the city from the beach, the former being a stifling, noisy, unpleasant place where rigid societal norms see office workers repeating the same dutiful yet unfulfilling roles. At one point in the film it is even described as being no place for humans to live. While the seaside is a place where a horizon of limitless potential can be seen. Again, represented by Toshio’s friend who dreams of leaving Japan for America. The film occasionaly spells out its politics and philosophy explicitly, with characters giving on-the-nose analysis of their own situations or that of society. However, it also does a fantastic job, aided by some superb performances, of giving emotional, believable examples of the struggle between the economic system and basic human desires.

In one scene we hear a voice over expounding on the subject of Archaeology. The film itself acts as the sort of cultural artefact that gives us an artistic yet accurate depiction of life at this time, with issues that remain relevant to this day. The romance of Ikuko and Jun appears doomed from the beginning due to their conflicting beliefs. Jun is unwilling to become part of society, despite the financial security it would provide, while Ikuko longs for freedom but is not prepared to sacrifice her position in Akiyama’s company.

Kontora (2019) by Anshul Chauhan

Sora (Wan Marui) comes home one day to find her grandfather has passed away. In front of him is a box of mementos, flight cap and goggles, and a war diary from his younger years. After reading an entry in the diary about a “metal arm” that he buried, Sora sets out to find it, keeping the secret from her father (Takuzo Shimizu). At the same time, a silent man who walks backwards (Hidemasa Mase) appears in their rural town. When Sora’s father hits him with the car, the two become involved with this figure, inviting him to their home, by turns caring and frustrated by his peculiar behaviour.

“Kontora” is a beautiful film, the stunning black and white cinematography perfectly capturing the philosophic nature of the story and mirroring its thematic depth. Writer-director Anshul Chauhan displays an influences from great cinematic works of the past, using the camera and staging to tell the story visually, while also creating a unique voice through the unusual, partly surreal, story. The camerawork in particular is exceptional, drawing us in to the characters by mimicing their motion, or literally following them as a subtle yet omnipresent observer. The rural setting of the film is shown off to its best advantage, the broad farmland, forest paths, and the tangled electrical cables and bustle of the town itself, representing something static and tangible, as opposed to the transient lives of the human protagonists. The existential themes, dealing with death and the forgotten stories of those who have passed, are reflected in the passing mists on the mountains, and in the interplay of light and shadow. The film leans into this expressionistic tone, with much of the story happening quietly and unspoken. The sometimes fantastical, abstract nature of the narrative, typified by the backwards-walking man, is occasionally punctuated by heartwrenchingly human and emotional scenes, such as when Sora allows her emotions to flow freely, or in her father’s disgust at his cousin’s coldhearted focus on money, giving them no time to grieve. The performances of Wan Marui as Sora and Takuzo Shimizu as her father are excellent, capturing the a complexity of their character’s conflicting emotions following their bereavement. The soundtrack by Yuma Koda adds elements of mystery, wonder, and suspense, complementing the often surprising narrative twists of the story. The film does require a lot of its audience, with long takes and contemplative story that leaves much unsaid, but the metaphors are far from impermeable and for those willing to spare a little time there is much to appreciate.

The most intriguing element of the story soon comes to be the backward-walking man, who appears shortly after Sora’s grandfather’s death. This mystery is further heightened by his inability to communicate, leading to frustration from Sora’s father, and increased curiosity from Sora. The man symbolises the lost memories of Sora’s grandfather, his backward walking representing a walk backwards through time, retreading of the past, and his inability to speak reflective of our relationship with the dead. They cannot speak to us, or tell us their stories, which can lead to curiosity or frustration, a desire to know more or an irritation at things left unsaid. As Sora and her father struggle to understand this person, they are similarly struggling to come to terms with the now vanished and voiceless past of their father and grandfather. It is a clever way to represent our relationship with time and mortality that leaves room for interpretation. A unique and interesting drama, poignant and engaging, with nuanced performances and excellent cinematography.

Poem (1972) by Akio Jissoji

Jun (Saburo Shinoda) is a young man working for the wealthy Moriyama family, serving them with a devotion that goes beyond duty, and rigidly dedicated to his daily routine (working from exactly 9 to 5 and patrolling the property at midnight). He lives with the younger Moriyama brother, Yasushi (Shin Kishida), who works as a lawyer, and his wife Natsuko (Eiko Yanami). Also resident are Moriyama’s assistant Wada (Ryo Tamura), and the maid Fujino (Hiroko Sakurai). When Moriyama’s brother Toru (Eishin Tono) arrives their lives are thrown into tumult as the brothers scheme to sell off the family’s forests, a plan that Jun is opposed to.

Written by Toshiro Ishida, and directed by Akio Jissoji, “Poem” returns to the black and white of “This Transient Life”. With the director’s creativity again on full display, this family drama adds thematic and emotional depth to its narrative of greed and selflessness. The story is relatively straightforward, leaving the esoteric, religious and philosophical of the previous “Buddhist Trilogy” films, for a story that focusses on human psychology, and critiques modern capitalist society and class structure. However, the apparent simplicity is nevertheless powerful if you take a closer look. Jun’s obsession with time-keeping, his fixation on repeating the same roles, his ascetic diet, offer a portrayal of a modern hermit, his lifestyle more akin to a monk than a houseboy. His peculiarities are further highlighted with his love of calligraphy, and his fascination with graveyards. It is not entirely clear why he feels this way, but the constrast with the materialistic Moriyama brothers is clear.

“Poem” is the final part of Akio Jissoji’s “Buddhist Trilogy”, and continues several of the themes of those previous films. The central thrust of the narrative is the corrupting influence of modern society, the greed engendered by capitalism, and the exploitation of natural resources. Jun’s emotional plea for them not to destory the forest of their inheritance for a quick profit, that they conserve rather than obliterate the past, is both poignant and timeless. Where the previous films focussed on characters who were cynical about religion, Jun represents someone who lives his life in a monastic way, perhaps intending to achieve some form of perfection or immortality. His focus on calligraphy reflects Masao’s sculpture in “This Transient Life”, and the symbolism of the grave and death, considerations of an afterlife reflect the previous film’s discussions of this theme of our relationship with our own mortality. Similarly, we see eroticism and sex as a release, either in conflict with ideas of self-actualisation, or part of that process. The pessimism of those previous films is also evident here, as it suggests a modern generation set on a destructive course, obliterating the past, with a clear stance against the greed and short-sightedness of the brothers, the way they treat women, and their focus on their own reputations above any other concern. The final film in Jissoji’s “Buddhist Trilogy”, “Poem” simplifies much of the nuance and complexity of previous films, instead providing a powerful polemic against commercialism and materialism, that is nevertheless in keeping with the previous films in questioning what is truly important in life.

This Transient Life (1970) by Akio Jissoji

Siblings begin an illicit, incestuous affair in this erotic drama touching on lust and faith from Akio Jissoji. 21-year old Masao Hino (Ryo Tamura) is a disappointment to his father, neither attending university or wishing to follow him into the family business. His friend, priest Ogino (Haruhiko Okamura), introduces him to Master Mori (Eiji Okada), who is hard at work carving a statue of Kanon, goddess of harmony, for his temple. While their parents are away Masao begins a sexual relationship with his 25-year old sister Yuri (Michiko Tsukasa). In order to keep this secret from their parents he tells her she must marry Iwashita (Kotobuki Hananomoto), their groundskeeper. Masao moves away to become an apprentice to Master Mori, later beginning an affair with Mori’s wife, Reiko (Mitsuko Tanaka).

Akio Jissoji’s “This Transient Life”, from a script by Toshiro Ishido, is a beautifully artistic film, displaying its creativity in every frame and scene; fluid direction is used to create a sense of life and vibrancy. A striking example of this is in the scene where the camera snakes its way through the Hino home, following Masao and Yuri, becoming voyeur documentarist while capturing an emotionality and physicality that draws the audience into the moment. The cinematography likewise creates stunning shots that seem full of metaphor and meaning, with angles emphasizing elements of the setting, such as the immovable stones of the temple or the ranks of statues that stand silent watch. These alongside the extreme close-ups help draw a distinction between the living and the dead, the transient and the eternal, in keeping with the themes of the film. The music by Toru Fuyuki is also used in an descriptive capacity, with sudden stings emphasising characters coming to stark, often shocking, realisations. Underlying all of this cinematic inventiveness is a story that harks back to ancient tragedies, drawing in timeless themes of sex, lust and faith. As with the chiaroscuro lighting, the choices faced by the characters are often stark, though their apparent simplicity belies a cauldron of roiling passions and competing desires. Aside from the sex scenes, the action is surprisingly static, with characters often lost in self-reflection or in discussion with others. The real action here is on an emotional and philosophical level, and the actors do a fantastic job with the nuanced portrayals of these characters, striving towards higher purpose in an apparently godless world.

“This Transient Life” is the first of Jissoji’s “Buddhist Trilogy”, though you do not need to be a scholar of the religion to appreciate the themes expressed. They are universal and timeless, a conflict between base human desire and a quest for something more, something transcendent or spiritual, that people have striven for throughout history. Masao is a man who appears to have no morality. As he explains to Ogino the priest, his lack of belief in heaven and hell leads him to act as he will, unconstrained by human law. At several points throughout the film he asks questions of Mori and Ogino that shake their faith. He is a rogue element in a society that is strictly conditioned to follow the precepts set down by religious orders, in this case Buddhist ideals and the notion of a correct or just path. His lust for his sister is a sin that cannot be countenanced by his friend, but in his worldview, the fact that he has the capacity and will to commit such an act seems at odds with any divine plan for humanity. Masao and Ogino have a tete-a-tete in which his troubling philosophy is offered up to the monk, who rejects it, but not without being shocked by its potential truthfulness. The ambiguous nature of the film, in particular the shocking ending, allows the audience to make up their own mind about both faith and morality. A stunning film that illustrates a deeply controversial and thought-provoking story with supreme artistry.