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.

Hiroshima (1953) by Hideo Sekigawa

The atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima was a tragic landmark in world history, a painful reminder of humanity’s capacity for violence and the devastating power of technology. The destruction of the city, the incredible death toll, and the subsequent suffering led to a long period of contemplation on the morality of this attack. Hideo Sekigawa’s film begins with a class of students in 1953, some of whom are suffering the consequences of the bomb through leukemia (known as the atomic sickness). In a powerful monologue one of the students rails against the short memories of the people, suggesting that not only the world is quickly forgetting the horror of what happened, but even citizens of Hiroshima itself. We are then taken back to a period shortly before August 6th 1945, introduced to several people living in the shadow of war, but entirely oblivious to the coming atrocity. The film depicts the day of the bombing and what followed in heartbreaking detail, showing the loss and agony of the victims as they struggle to come to terms with the aftermath of this terrifying new weapon.

Yasutaro Yagi’s screenplay is based on real life accounts from the time, which were collected by Dr. Arata Osada in his 1951 book “Children of the Bomb”. Filmed in 1953, the memory of Hiroshima would still have been fresh in many people’s minds and its shockingly explicit depiction of things such as burn victims, mental anguish, the death of children, and other horrors, shows a determination to confront head-on this tragedy that left a deep scar on the Japanese psyche. The film does not have a singular narrative, instead showing various vignettes of different people and events that symbolise the period. Whether it is a class of children trapped beneath the rubble; a soldier who clings desperately to his sense of duty; or the wailing of infants for their mothers in makeshift refuges, the film takes us to the human heart of what this attack meant to those affected by it. “Hiroshima” righthly maintains a firm focus on the victims, rather than complicate it with unnecessary historical detail or attempt to retrospectively contextualise the attack, with only a brief mention of events such as Pearl Harbour and the Bataan Death March. The film’s recreation of the devastated city, rubble strewn streets, unquenchable fires burning, smoke billowing, is shocking to witness, giving a limited yet impactful sense of the reality. There are occasional clips taken from contemporary documentary footage, showing doctors at work on victims, or destroyed streets, that help remind the viewer that however extreme the portrait seems, if anything it does not capture the true horror of what occurred. The main cast comprises several stars of the period, Yumeji Tsukioka (who had previously starred in “The Bells of Nagasaki”, another film about survivors of the second atomic bomb dropped on Japan), Eiji Okada, Yoshi Kato, and Isuzu Yamada, alongside an incredible supporting cast which includes many young actors. The performances capture the excruciating physical pain of the victims alongside the shock and sheer terror of what they witnessed and experienced. The sequences of people hobbling and crawling, each step an agony, are particularly moving. The use of large numbers of extras helps gives a sense of the scale of the tragedy, with entire neighbourhoods devastated by the blast. The score by Akira Ifukube is a thrilling orchestral composition that highlights the enormity of what befell at Hiroshima, a devastating eulogy to those who were lost.

“Hiroshima” is an attempt to document and recreate the pain of this event. One of the most powerful scenes comes towards the end when we see the ghosts of those who were killed rise up in silent groups, a powerful memorial to the victims of the bombing. Throughout the film there is a focus on children too, understandably as the script was based on the testimony of young witnesses in Dr. Osada’s book. The film begins with a class full of young people and children feature throughout. Many of these children had their future stolen from them on that day, either through the illnesses they developed, or through the mental strain of dealing with the aftermath. We later see a roving band of orphans begging for food and scavenging for scrap metal to sell, their lives overturned in an instant. The film presents a stark depiction of the events, without dramatizing or exaggerating, simply allowing us to experience a part of what happened and the aftermath. A film that pricks the conscience, with a forceful message that such things should never be forgotten nor repeated.

Woman of the Dunes (1964) by Hiroshi Teshigahara

woman in the dunes

“Woman of the Dunes”, based on the novel of the same title by Kobo Abe, is a peculiar tale, part mystery, part social commentary. The film begins with an entomologist (Eiji Okada) searching for insects in a vast sandy terrain beside the sea. After wandering for some time collecting specimens he is approached by a group of men who ask him if he has somewhere to stay that night. They inform him that their village is poor but that there is a shack nearby where he might find shelter. They lead him to a rickety house in a large hole in the dunes that he descends to via rope ladder. In the hut at the bottom of the pit there is a woman (Kyoko Kishida) with whom he shares a pleasant enough evening meal. By night the woman has to haul sand away from the house, which is then winched up by the men above, to prevent it being buried beneath the ever tumbling sandfall from above. She makes a comment to the man that she doesn’t expect him to work “on the first night”. The man soon discovers that their offer of shelter was a ruse and he has been trapped down in this pit with no hope of return to the world above. The men take away the rope ladder at night, leaving both him and the woman captive. As the days go by, the man’s relationship with the woman deepens and develops as he plots his escape.

From the opening scenes it is clear that director Hiroshi Teshigahara has a clear and unique vision. He uses the cinematic form to its utmost to create a compelling work. The shots of dunes in the opening perfectly captures the sense of somebody who is emotionally lost without ever having to explain this to us. Extreme close-ups of insects show the entomologist’s obsession with seemingly insignificant minutia that perhaps lead him into the deception, as he is unable to see what is going on around him. Also worth mentioning are the passionate scenes between him and the woman, that manage a sensuality and eroticism through almost abstract close-ups. This is true throughout with an intensity to much of the film that is seemingly conjured out of very little, instead due to the incredible interplay between unique imagery and an affecting soundscape. The score by Toru Takemitsu, with strained violins and undercurrent of dread, compliments the direction and acting to create a powerful piece of cinema. Both of the main actors, Eiji Okada and Kyoko Kishida, do a great job with this script. It could easily have been a stage play as the majority of the action simply involves two people in or around a cabin. It is great to see two well drawn characters, expertly acted, develop in unison, each learning from or being inspired by the other.

The films premise is deceptively simple, essentially a man is trapped in a hole with a woman, but through this the film manages to explore a number of interesting themes. It is a rumination on freedom and enslavement and whether there is much of a difference between them. It can be seen as a gloomy satire on work and society, with the interminable and pointless venture of clearing sand away from the house being a perfect metaphor for life and humanities attempts to delay the inevitable. There is also an emotional relationship between the two leads, an exploration of lust and sexuality, and often difficult questions raised regarding this. Much like shifting sands the film can be interpreted as any number of things depending on what you want to see there. A unique premise that lends itself to several allegorical interpretations. A must watch classic for those who enjoy complex character studies with socio-political overtones.