'Akio Jiss˘ji: The Buddhist Trilogy'
(Kotobuki Hananomoto, Akiji Kobayashi, Eiji Okada, K˘ji Shimizu, Hiroko Sakurai, et al / 4-Disc Blu-ray / NR / 2019 / Arrow Films UK)
Overview: Akio Jiss˘ji created a rich and diverse body of work during his five decades in Japan's film and television industries.
For some, he is best-known for his science-fiction: the 1960s TV series Ultraman and 1998's box-office success Tokyo: The Last Megalopolis.
For others, it is his 1990s adaptations of horror and mystery novelist Edogawa Rampo, such as Watcher in the Attic and Murder on D Street.
And then there are his New Wave films for the Art Theatre Guild, three of which This Transient Life, Mandara and Poem, forming 'The Buddhist Trilogy' are collected here.
Blu-ray Verdict: Winner of the Golden Leopard award at the 1970 Locarno Film Festival, 'This Transient Life' (1970) is among the Art Theatre Guild s most successful and most controversial productions.
The film concerns a brother and sister from a rich family who defy the expectations placed on them: he has little interest in further education or his father's business, instead obsessing over Buddhist statues; she continually refuses a string of suitors and the prospect of marriage.
Their closeness, and isolation, gives way to an incestuous relationship which, in turn, breeds disaster.
'This Transient Life' is, on the surface, a sordid tale about the interaction between incest, immorality and Buddhism. Dig a little deeper and that's exactly what it continues to turn out to be.
The lead character is Masao, a young man who shuns the path laid down by his rich father to take over his trading business, instead we see him idolize Buddhist sculpture and spend his days laconically with prostitutes and reading books.
His sister Yuri similarly lives how she chooses having turned down two marriage proposals preferring to be close to home and the local monastery. When a playful scene between Yuri and Masao turns into a lustful embrace, the siblings' bond becomes sexual rather than familial and this sets the tone for the rest of the film.
When the monk Ogino discovers their secret, he urges Masao to leave the village and he does so to become the apprentice of a master sculpture of icons of the Buddha.
Throughout the film, Buddhism shows us that life fades quickly and existential questions of how to live ones life are asked. Should one be pure and live by the codes set by religion, or should those very teachings, of the impermanence of life and its swift passing, be a reason to create ones own morality and fear no hell and covet no afterlife?
'Mandara' (1971), Jiss˘ji's first color feature, maintained the controversial subject matter, focusing on a cult who recruit through rape and hope to achieve true ecstasy through sexual release.
Shot, as with all of Jiss˘ji's Art Theatre Guild works, in a radically stylized manner, the film sits somewhere between the pinku genre and the fiercely experimental approach of his Japanese New Wave contemporaries.
Upon first viewing, one is struck by the visual compositions, image juxtaposition and the sound production. Actually that's all there is to be struck by for the first few minutes as it takes a while for the story to get going.
I didn't mind as nearly every frame of this film is a masterwork of composition and camera movement. Unfortunately the verbal part of the film is problematic for several reasons.
Third, the film almost requires a decent knowledge of Japanese Buddhist philosophy not just Buddhism in general. Oh, and finally, the film seems very much a product of the turbulent times it was produced and the characters seem motivated by the issues of that time in Japan.
The final entry in the trilogy, 'Poem' (1972), returns to black and white and is centered on the austere existence of a young houseboy who becomes helplessly embroiled in the schemes of two brothers.
Written by Toshir˘ Ishid˘ (screenwriter of Nagisa ďshima's The Sun's Burial and Sh˘hei Imamura's Black Rain), who also penned 'This Transient Life' and 'Mandala', 'Poem' continues the trilogy's exploration of faith in a post-industrial world.
A young houseboy in Uta wakes up every night to patrol the house of a teacher with a flashlight. He leads an austere life of meditation and he focuses his devotional attention on writing inscriptions for tombstones.
In one of his tours he sees something he shouldn't have. The pervert pleasure of portraying him as a pillar of moral behaviour for the duration of the film is to see the downfall.
As the teacher and his elder brother conspire to take over the mountain property of their grandfather and turn it over to realtors for a profit, Renge spends his time shuddering helpless, on his knees.
The final image haunts with the futility of faith and the spiritual in a crass capitalist world.
In closing, and getting personal, given the subject matter of all these three films in this wondrous trilogy, from a spiritual standpoint I stand by the fact that the so-called nothingness of nirvana is not a rejection of consciousness, as has been posited, but rather a supreme consciousness, a true perception of the world as impermanent and everchanging.
Ergo, if life is like playing the piano, the enlightened doesn't stop playing it to become absorbed with the self, but, having tuned it to perfection, plays every note in harmony.
And the moral code of good and evil, the "sila" of the Buddhists, is not a restriction of laws but rather a realization that certain acts further our misery, others free us from it. Watch these films and decide for yourself come the end of the trilogy what and where your own beliefs fall. You may even surprise yourself. This is a Widescreen Presentation (1.78:1) enhanced for 16x9 TVs via a brand new Blu-ray (1080p) HD presentation and comes with the Special Features of:
High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentations of This Transient Life, Mandara and Poem
Original uncompressed LPCM mono 1.0 audio on all three films
Newly translated optional English subtitles
Introductions to all three films by David Desser, author of Eros Plus
Massacre: An Introduction to the Japanese New Wave
Scene-select commentaries on all three films by Desser
Theatrical trailer for Mandara
Theatrical trailer for Poem
Limited edition packaging, fully illustrated by maarko phntm
Illustrated 80-page perfect-bound collector's book featuring new writings on the film by Anton Bitel and Tom Mes