Under the Stars (2020) by Tatsushi Omori

A young girl begins to question her parents belief in an unusual cult in this examination of faith and family. As Chihiro Hayashi suffered with terrible exczma as an infant, her father was recommended a miracle water, apparently imbued with cosmic energy. When they rub this on Chihiro she is cured of her painful skin condition. Now at primary school, Chihiro (Mana Ashida) and her parents are still part of this cult, drinking the ‘blessed’ water provided by the organization daily, while her parents are further involved in odd rituals of dousing themselves in water, and buying various products from the sect. Chihiro’s older sister (Aju Makita) is sceptical, refusing to completely follow their rules, and eventually distancing herself from them. However, despite the teasing of her friend Nabe (Ninon), and the concerns of her uncle Yuzo (Kohei Otomo), Chihiro is reluctant to leave her parents.

Based on the book by Natsuko Imamura, with a screenplay by director Tatsushi Omori, “Under the Stars” is a touching coming-of-age drama about an often overlooked problem: that of children growing up in religious households, unable to reject their parents beliefs. While Chihiro’s parents are not violent or abusive, in fact they are shown as loving and kind towards their daughter, they believe in a nonsensical placebo: something that is ridiculed by many around Chihiro. While their behaviour is bizarre to the audience, it appears perfectly natural to Chihiro, who has grown up surrounded by these beliefs. Mana Ashida gives a great performance as the young Chihiro, dealing with regular schoolgirl issues such as a crush on her teacher Minami (Masaki Okada) as well as the conflict between her parents, friends and extended family. She is well-adjusted in spite of her parents asking her to do strange things, such as wearing a pair of glasses to alter the way she sees the world; or drinking the expensive bottles of water in order to prevent illness. Masatoshi Nagase and Tomoyo Harada are also excellent as her loving yet misguided parents, playing straight-faced their adherence to the cult’s practices. They are sympathetic figures, especially as their entry to the cult was prompted by their daughter’s illness and seems well-intentioned in attempting to prevent harm to her and others. Chihiro is caught between two worlds, exemplified by her school friend Nabe, and Sanae (Ai Mikami), another child brought up in the cult. The film avoids sentimentality, with most of the responses to Chihiro’s family being confusion or mild amusement. Chihiro’s uncle Yuzo’s attempts to break them out of this mindset is one of the more emotionally raw moments, showing his distress at what has happened to his sister’s family.

“Under the Stars” ends on an ambiguous note, showing the ludicrous fiction that Chihiro’s parents are living, yet at the same time making clear their love for their daughter. This echoes the film’s central theme that good people can be easily manipulated by these groups. Minami teaches mathematics and science, suggesting that Chihiro is stuck between worlds of fact and fantasy, reality and religion. Having being misinformed her entire life, and slowly seeing the truth, she nevertheless clings to her parents and wants to please them. The film sheds light on the practice of cults making money off credulous and well-meaning individuals, while depicting the positive and negative aspects of piety, in Chihiro’s bond with her parents and their adherence to the organization. A powerful film about the tragedy of growing up in a cult, and the strength of human relationships and religious convictions.

Mandala (1971) by Akio Jissoji

Two disenchanted young men and their partners become involved in a cult in this erotic experimental film from Akio Jissoji, part two of his “Buddhist Trilogy”. We are first introduced to the two couples in a motel, where they are watched over by members of the cult. Shinichi (Koji Shimizu) and his girlfriend Yukiko (Akiko Mori), and Hiroshi (Ryo Tamura) and his girlfriend Yasuko (Hiroko Sakurai). Members of the cult rape Yukiko on a beach after knocking out Shinichi. When he comes around he also engages in sex with her unconscious body, excited by the feeling of her being in a death-like state. They are later introduced to the cult led by Maki (Shin Kishida), who are self-substitent through agricultural work, and whose aim is to stop time, to step outside the boundaries that constrain normal human society. They believe that eroticism is a means to achieving this, putting them in a state that is beyond the temporal.

Written by Toshiro Ishido and directed by Akio Jissoji, “Mandala” is a difficult work to watch, not only as it features rape, abortion, and suicide, but also for the complex blend of political, philosophical, and religious thought that comprises the plot. If you have seen “This Transient Life”, the first part of  Jissoji’s “Buddhist Trilogy”, the similarities in style here will be apparent throughout, from specific camera moves and angles to the way certain conversational scenes are framed and blocked. This film is largely in colour, utilising black and white to great effect in creating a distance and contrast with particular mindsets. We largely see the black and white appear later in members of the cult who have given themselves over to the notion of rejecting time, or living in a liminal state on the cusp of death, while the colour represents perhaps the clear eyed view of life as it truly is. The minimal score, again by Toru Fuyuki, includes pipe organ music and a soundscape of ticking clocks, further emphasising the theme and ominous presence of time. Again there are heavy religious overtones to the work, with close-ups of prayer beads and Buddhist imagery of demons throughout.

The story itself is relatively straightforward, although the actions of the characters, particularly the cult members, may be almost impossible to understand at first. Essentially the protagonists are looking for an escape from their lives; they are failed revolutionaries, who see in the cult a means of transcending the human world, becoming something outside of it. One of the men throws himself wholly into this new religion, abandoning his sense of time, his connection with the living world, subsuming himself into the eternal, while the other finds it harder to disengage from humanity, largely sickened by what he sees as nothing more than a debauched sex/death cult. The film tackles themes of political disenchantment, religious fervour, eroticism, mankind’s relationship with time and death, and nihilism, or the rejection of what we might consider human values. The political and philosophical diatribes that the characters go on certainly leave you with questions about the right and wrong path for people, and the film’s ambiguities, including a particularly dark ending, mean that it stays with you long after it is over.