All life is suffering, and all suffering is caused by desire. Ninko, the titular monk at the centre of this entertaining oddity from Norihiro Niwatsukino, seems to have taken this to heart and is suffering more than most in his attempts to reach Nirvana. Suffering of Ninko (仁光の受難, Ninko no Junan) takes its cues from the Hyaku-monogatari classical Japanese tales of ghosts and the supernatural as its seemingly comic story of a pretty monk and his ironic talent for attracting the wrong kind of attention gradually darkens until its unexpectedly strange finale. Visually striking if a little rough around the edges, Suffering of Ninko has a pleasantly organic quality as if its narrator were really making it up as she goes along only to tire of it a little by the end and give us a suitably spooky conclusion to send us on our way.
Ninko (Masato Tsujioka) is the most assiduous monk at his temple. His desire for asceticism knows no bounds as he spends his days cleaning, polishing the artefacts, reciting sutras and meditating. The problem is, Ninko is just too damn pretty. Every time he ventures into town the womenfolk go crazy, even getting upset if they discover he isn’t among the monks despatched on the daily alms harvesting mission. In fact, Ninko has also attracted the attention of the two gay monks at the temple which he seems to find a little irritating but unlike some of the others this is a very real problem for him as he’s decided to keep his mind and body pure though total celibacy. This unfortunate and quite ironic talent of his which makes him some sort of magnet for the repressed sexual desires of just about everyone actually makes him feel quite bad, arousing all this lust but ultimately unable to satisfy it.
After a strange encounter in the woods provokes a kind of spiritual crisis in the earnest Ninko, filling his world with bared breasts and erotic visions, the chief monk sends him off on a pilgrimage, reminding him that a denial of his baser emotions is not the same the same as facing them and will only result in additional suffering. Whilst on the road, Ninko meets up with violent ronin Kanzo (Hideta Iwahashi), and gets pulled into the strange goings on in a mountain village where the men have been gradually going missing. The locals have laid these disappearances at the feet of Yama-onna (Miho Wakabayashi) – a ghostly forest bound presence who seduces wayward men only to feast on their vitality.
Beginning almost like a rakugo tale, the central joke of Ninko’s ongoing, largely self imposed, suffering is in his ironic talent for arousing sexual desire in places which he does not want it (which is to say everywhere). More than just good looks, Ninko seems to have some kind of magnetic power which sends almost everyone he meets wild with insatiable lust which is quite the problem seeing as he’s committed to remaining celibate. He may think that he does not feel desire but as Kanzo later tells him, this denial is a kind of self deception masking the fact that he feels it all too much. The strange and mystical encounter with a noh mask wearing woman (?) in the forest leads to a bizarre sequence of beautifully choreographed visions of erotic ecstasy accompanied by Ravel’s Bolero after which Ninko has some kind of breakdown resulting from sexual frustration.
This first encounter with the supernatural leaves him with a burnt hand and a burning mind but also with the lingering suspicion that his curse may not be of entirely mortal origins. Thus he originally declines to accompany Kanzo on his quest to end Yama-onna’s days of wild abandon in the woods to enter a period of introspective questioning in wondering if he and Yama-onna are of a piece in their mirrored need for and denial of sexual pleasure. When he finally meets her he gets a kind of answer to his question which relegates the monkish Ninko to the realms of the forgotten as the newly born legend of Ninko-bo assumes his form.
Inspired by the classical nature of the tale, Niwatsukino makes striking use of animation inspired by scroll paintings, ukiyo-e prints, and shunga all accompanied by the gentle voice of the narrator to add to the mythic atmosphere. In keeping with its inspiration, the narrative has a suitably throw away quality as if it were all being made up on the spot which of course means that it drags here and there and ends somewhat abruptly but then that is the nature of the tale. A psychedelic oddity which revels in a sense of playfulness undercut by dark spirituality and existential dread, Suffering of Ninko is a story for a stormy night, strange and a little bit scary but with its tongue tucked firmly in its cheek.
Available to stream online from Festival Scope until 20th February 2017 in conjunction with International Film Festival Rotterdam.
Original trailer (English subtitles)