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.

Lady Snowblood: Love Song of Vengeance (1974) by Toshiya Fujita

Yuki Kashima (Meiko Kaji) returns in this sequel to the blood-spattered revenge drama “Lady Snowblood”. The infamous assassin is arrested after her terrifying killing spree and sentenced to death. She is given a choice by Seishiro Kikuki (Shin Kishida), head of the secret police: to die or to help him kill an anarchist by the name of  Ransui Tokunaga (Juzo Itami), after retrieving something from his house. Yuki moves in as a maid with Tokunaga and his wife (Kazuko Yoshiyuki), and soon comes to trust them. She learns that the object she is to obtain is evidence that threatens to topple the government. She decides to help Tokunaga and later a rebel bend led by his brother Shusuke (Yoshio Harada).

The film has a very different feel to the first film. As that film ended with Yuki achieving her own personal vendetta, it was clear things needed to move in another direction. This film is far more of a political thriller, and Yuki, while important to the plot, is often not the focus of the action. The film opens with the temple of Priest Dokai in a state of disrepair, festooned with cobwebs. Dokai is dead and we see Yuki mourning at his grave beside that of her mother. This continues the theme of generational change, suggesting a clean break with the past as Japan moves towards a new era. The backdrop to this film is the end of the Russo-Japanese war, and the poverty caused by rampant inflation. The citizens are living in slums while the secret police attempt to maintain the current order by putting down resistance movements to the government.

Along with a darker and more politically conscious tone, the film also does away with the chaptered divisions of the first and most of the flashbacks. The film is told in a more traditional style and there is more time spent with certain characters, including Yuki. Meiko Kaji is given a more nuanced role, dealing with loss and gaining more allies in the form of Ransui and Shusuke. There is also an interesting subplot about these brothers’ own relationship. The action sequences will not disappoint fans of the first movie, in particular scenes where Yuki faces off against multiple opponents, giving Kaji chance to show her swordsmanship. There are the gory deaths one might expect, as well as some genuinely chilling scenes of torture. Toshiya Fujita’s direction seems to take a cue from the story, with a more contemplative tone. While still being a fast-paced action story, the direction is more considered, moving away from the manga influences of the first towards a more cinematic style, and the set-pieces build on what was seen in the original.

The story itself is interesting, perhaps even more so than the first, in tackling political issues and social themes. It looks at a period of Japanese history following the military campaigns in Manchuria, with the Japanese people having lost that wide-eyed innocence about Imperialism and now living in the aftermath of deprivation while the government enjoy the spoils. The secret police are portrayed as villainous, while the anarchist is an entirely sympathetic character. This bold political statement fits the revenge plot style recognizable from the first film, offering extreme yet believable antagonists. The sets of the  lower quarters are fantastic and give a real sense of the destitution that was commonplace. This change in focus, from Yuki’s personal journey to a more socially conscious theme, gives “Love Song of Vengeance” a very different feel to the first “Lady Snowblood”. A superb sequel that builds on the character and offers a completely fresh story, albeit with the familiar elements of swordplay and skulduggery that made the first such fun to watch.