Suffering of Ninko (2016)

Ninko (Masato Tsujioka) is a trainee Buddhist monk with a problem: despite a religious proscription against carnal lust, he finds himself irresistible to women. As he walks through the town with his fellow monks he is accosted by women who are barely able to restrain their desire. Being dedicated to his chosen path, Ninko resists any and all temptation, but soon he begins to be visited by strange manifestations in his dreams. As he attempts to ward off the thoughts through recitation of sutras, the visions of lascivious women exposing themselves to him and luring him to unwanted thoughts become to much. He flees the temple and sets off on a pilgrimage to find some kind of solace. On his way he comes across a ronin (Hideta Iwahashi) and the two of them travel together to a remote mountain village. There they hear tell of a mysterious mountain woman (Miho Wakabayashi) who manages to entrap men with sexual desire before killing them. The samurai agrees to kill the woman, ridding the village of this fear, and sets out with Ninko to face this peculiar foe.

“Suffering of Ninko” is the debut feature of Norihiro Niwatsukino, who not only wrote and directed the story but was also responsible for the special effects and animated sequences. The story has a folkloric feel about it and this is played up with the use of narration and the interweaving of traditional-looking animation. The film has a great visual style and although the locations used are sparing it does a good job of recreating the period in costumes and sets. The cinematography by Takayuki Okazaki and Shunichiro Yamamoto is a joy to behold, reminiscent of classic period and samurai dramas with vivid colours and camera work emphasising the ambient beauty. The style of animation reflects Japanese wood-cuts or ancient calligraphy and adds to the film’s charm. Masato Tsujioka does a good job with the character of Ninko, a man who is struggling to balance his innate sexuality with his religious duties. The narration by Quoko Kudo is important in creating a tone for the film that suggests it should be read more as a moralistic fable than a true-life account. The main cast is rounded out with Hideta Iwahashi as Kanzo the ronin and Miho Wakabayashi as Yama-onna.

Although the premise of the film, a sexually irresistible man fighting off the advances of insatiable women, may sound like that of a raunchy sex comedy, in truth the film is actually far more thoughtful than this. “Suffering of Ninko” treads a fine line between the sublime and the base and plays on the apparent contradictions inherent in human nature. Ninko’s role as a priest is in constant conflict with his reality as a man and the innate sexual desires that comes with that. Sexual repression through religion has been a feature of many civilizations and here it is brought to the screen in a way that is not overly sombre, but similarly doesn’t take its subject lightly. The removal of masks by characters during his extended sexual dream suggests that Ninko sees through humanity’s seemingly respectable façade. This is further emphasised by his meeting of the woman in the forest, where she talks to him from behind a mask. Kanzo tells Ninko that he both desires sex and is repelled by it, in the same way that Kanzo desires violence but shies from it. This duality of nature is important. There is a shame attached to sex in modern society that is partly, though not entirely attributable to the control exercised by religious organizations. “Suffering of Ninko” features many scenes set outdoors and Ninko’s escape from the temple shows this return to nature narrative. He is a man struggling against instinctive desires in pursuit of something higher in the form of religious transcendence. The film is one that is worth watching as it presents a unique directorial vision that blends arthouse with low comedy, but has a genuine depth of theme and ideas.

Love Exposure (2008)

Yu Honda’s life is one steeped in Christian tradition. Following the death of his mother, a devoutly religious woman, he lives together with his father who turns to the priesthood to deal with his grief. However, his father’s increasingly stringent demands for his son to confess his sins soon leads Yu into the gang lifestyle in order to find something worthy of confession. Yu meets up with a group of tearaway teens who are into shoplifting and soon graduates to taking covert upskirt photos of women, believing sexual perversion to be the one thing that will satiate his father. Meanwhile, Yu’s father falls in love with a sexually aggressive woman who leads him away from his calling as a priest, and Yu continues with his perverse hobby along with his newfound friends. Yu has sworn off sexual or romantic relationships with any woman other than his “Maria”, after his mother told him in his youth that she wanted him to find a girl exactly like the mother of Christ. Unexpectedly, while in drag after losing a bet, Yu meets his Maria in the shape of Yoko. This girl is also carrying plenty of emotional and psychological baggage, having suffered physical and sexual abuse at the hands of her promiscuous father. Yoko falls in love with Yu, believing him to be a woman called Miss Scorpion. Unable to confess to her as himself, Yu is in emotional turmoil. A second girl, Aya Koike, is meanwhile attempting to destroy Yu’s family, by converting his father to the cult of Zero Church that she is involved with.

Written and directed by Sion Sono the film is clearly the work of an auteur of exceptional talent and unique vision. While a four-hour movie may sound long, Sono’s skill at storytelling and the characters, humour and ideas he manages to pack in make this an enjoyable watch from start to finish. The running time also allows for a full exploration of several of the themes of the movie. The film is chaptered, and with the main three characters of Yu, Yoko and Aya, it is broken up in such a way that maintains the audiences interest throughout. As well as several plot strands, such as Yu’s deception of Yoko as Miss Scorpion, the Zero Church, and even Yu’s father’s romance, each relationship sets up another conflict requiring resolution. The actors all do an incredible job with the material that veers from slapstick to serious without ever undermining itself. Takahiro Nishijima is great as Yu, who is fighting to reconcile his religious upbringing with his emotional urges. It is a credit to him that he creates a believable character of Yu, who could have been simply a caricature pervert. The film later makes a point of contrasting him with just such characters to emphasise his own psychological depth. Aya Koike is a force of nature, manipulative and vicious, though again with good reason. Hikari Mitsushima delivers a spellbinding performance. While her initial appearance seems to suggest a typical angry teenager, as the film progresses and we see her open up emotionally she shows a huge range. In particular her recitation of the biblical passage Corinthians 13 is an incredible piece of acting and one of the highlights of the later portion of the film.

What begins as a satirical look at the perversion of religion and its obsession with deviancy, and in particular sexual deviancy, expands to include various topics. There is throughout an examination of sex, both its dark and destructive aspect as well as its undeniable power and significance in human relations. The film also deals with issues of abuse, emotional, physical and sexual, and how this can impact on the development of individuals. It may be convenient for some to boil the film down to an essential message about the importance of love, or even a more cliched “love conquers all” philosophy, but that would be to miss the point. The film’s multifarious dimensions, the merging and distorting of divine and obscene imagery, suggests an intention to purposely blur the lines between what is and is not sacred or important to humanity. People struggle under the weight of imposed religious morality, and it is openly mocked at times, but there is an understanding that people need something to strive towards or cling to. For some in the film this means substituting the traditional Christian church with a new cult, for others it is an obsession with perversion, for others it is love. “Love Exposure” is rarely condescending, even when pointing out the absurdity of humans. It instead attempts to unravel the various social pressures, psychological foundations, and basic human drivers to understand why humans act the way they do.

Mukoku (2017)

Kengo Yatabe (Go Ayano) is a young man battling several demons. His father, strict to the point of psychologically abusive, trained him in the art of kendo. After an incident in which Kengo struck him across the head with a bokuto, his father is now comatose and Kengo feels the guilt of his actions, knowing that he has as good as killed his own father. He has retreated into the bottle, given up kendo, and now works as a security guard. His days consist of routine punctuated by heavy drinking, a far cry from the young focussed athlete he once was. Tooru (Nijiro Murakami) is a teenager who likewise seems frustrated and alienated from the world. His passion is rap and specifically writing lyrics which help him express his pent up rage and emotions. After a run-in with a group of kendo players, he is dragged along to their training session. Showing himself to be full of aggression, though untrained, the tutor takes an interest in him. The teacher is also trying to bring Kengo round from his stupor and arranges for the two men to cross paths. This fateful meeting puts both on a collision course, with Tooru now dedicated to the sport that Kengo is attempting to run from.

From the opening scenes of the film it is clear that this is something special. We see a young Kengo and his father training, while the mother calls them for dinner. The transition to the inciting incident of Kengo injuring his father is perfect in putting the audience off-guard. It is not immediately clear what has happened, as the early scenes could be straight from a samurai film, suddenly interrupted by the appearance of a university student. This perfectly captures one of the film’s themes as we see the ancient traditions coming right down to the present. This confusion also puts us in a similar position to Kengo himself as he is unable to fully come to terms or understand what happened, whether it was an accident or purposeful attack. Throughout he is haunted by visions and recriminations of that event, and it is not at first clear exactly what happened. Likewise, the way the film shows Tooru’s sense of isolation with an opening shot with him out of frame and imagery of an underwater crowd at his concert, shows the skill and confidence of the director Kazuyoshi Kumakiri to tell this story in an interesting visual way. The script is written by Ryo Takada, based on the book by Shu Fujisawa. Both Go Ayano and Nijiro Murakami give exceptional performances. The director is not afraid of long takes and even in lengthy scenes both are entirely believable in their roles. The supporting cast, most notably Akira Emoto as the kendo instructor help to bring this world to life. There is a small part for Atsuko Maeda as Kengo’s girlfriend. The story is well paced and the occasional flashbacks and lapses into Kengo’s traumatic recollections keep you guessing what has happened and what will happen. It is not a typical sports story, though there are occasional training montages, but everything is tied more particularly into the psychology of Kengo, and to a lesser extend Tooru. The cinematography is beautiful, including some standout moments, such as the fight in the rain.

Mukoku is nominally a sports story, with a great insight into the art of kendo and scenes of practice and combat. This only acts as a support for the emotional drama of the main characters. It would not have worked with another sport. The traditionalism and values of kendo are of special significance in this story. In an early scene we see a giant statue of Kannon, a buddhist deity, on a hillside behind Kengo as he shares a beer with a homeless drunk. Themes of religion and tradition become more apparent as the film goes along. The film stresses the importance of having a strong moral code and more importantly something to focus on to prevent becoming wayward. The will to survive in the battle-practice of kendo can be seen as a basis for a healthy life and averting a descent into melancholy and despair. It is clear that Kengo is directionless, drifting through a life of alcohol and regret, with his former master attempting to set him back on the right path. Tooru is by contrast inspired by the strict training regime and dedication required for Kendo. The philosophy of kendo plays a central role in the story, with many of the lessons of this art becoming guiding principles for the characters. The ideas of sin and righteousness, displayed by Kengo’s straying from the path and Tooru’s adherence to it, is characterised well. A highly entertaining film dealing with several issues and coming at them from a peculiarly Japanese angle. Definitely recommended for those with an interest in kendo, its practice and philosophy.