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.

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.

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.