“There are many strange things happening in this world” according to the mysterious young woman who appears in the brief live action sequences bookending Ujicha’s debut feature, The Burning Buddha Man (燃える仏像人間, Moeru Butsuzo Ningen). Who is she? One of the “space people” mentioned in the accompanying voice over which also points out that humans are hard to trust seeing as they don’t even trust each other, or merely a stand in for the omnipotent artist sitting down as she does and looking over her creation her butler dutifully waiting at her side? Who can say, it’s just one of many mysteries at the heart of Ujicha’s beguiling retro sci-fi/horror Buddhist conspiracy thriller animated in his now trademark and equally retro “gekimation” style.
Taking place in the director’s native Kyoto, the action opens with a strange, alien-like creature breaking into a temple and firing some kind of laser from a phallic device on his belt directly into the head of a colossal Buddha statue. The couple who look after the family-run temple, mindful of their duty to protect their ancestral legacy, are perturbed and politely ask the creature to stop but are later caught in the crossfire when the statue suddenly disappears leaving only their bottom halves behind. Cue the arrival of teenage daughter Beniko (Yuka Iguchi) in her school uniform who is quickly taken in by weird old monk Enju (Minori Terada) who explains that he’s an old friend of her parents and that the theft of the statue is part of a spate of similar heists across the Kyoto area perpetrated by a crazed cult who are apparently intent on “rescuing” neglected Buddha statues from “disrespectful” modern people. Staying with him in his temple, however, Beniko starts to have doubts especially after encountering the strange-looking children who run wild in the grounds Enju claims are “disadvantaged” kids he’s taken in after they were abandoned by their parents because of their odd appearances, not to mention an encounter with Enju’s sculptor grandson Enji (Ryuki Kitaoka) who suddenly frees a small dog apparently trapped inside the uchiguri cavity of an Buddhist statue after being caught in the range of the “Matter Transference Device” used by the thieves to teleport the neglected icons to “safety”.
A weird tale of spiritual fusion, The Burning Buddha Man’s villains have apparently forgotten all their Buddhist teachings and become “addicted” to melding with statues in order to harness their power and become all powerful beings. Beniko, however, is still pure of heart and is not after revenge for what happened to her parents but to save the wrongdoers by making them “reform”. To do so, however, she’ll have to undergo an apparently reversible transformation herself as well as journeying to another world where, she discovers, her elderly catatonic grandmother (Chisako Hara) has apparently been in training for just such an eventuality for the last couple of decades. “It’s easy just to kill them” Beniko later explains, “but no one can get out from their suffering that way” apparently hoping to undo some of the pain in the world caused by this strange new technology through an act of healing.
As showcased in the live action intro/extro sequences in which the young woman painstakingly assembles and then disassembles her world, pausing briefly to look admiringly at a figure perhaps representing herself before handing it back to her gloved butler for safekeeping, Burning Buddha Man’s aesthetics consist of a series of beautifully painted backdrops and paper cut out puppets of its strange cast of characters which include a gang of Giger-esque biomechanical former Buddhist monks rendered monstrous by their experiments in spiritual enhancement. Amping up the body horror quotient, real liquid often oozes from their mouths made sickening in its viscosity while blood later fills the screen. Yet for all that there’s a strangely childlike glee in the macabre grimness as the wholesome heroine and her pure-hearted friends push back against the corruptions of hyper-religiosity and spiritual madness hoping to restore rather than destroy but ultimately finding themselves forging a purifying hellscape that ends only in fire (and a peculiar kind of sludge making its way towards the drain of all humanity). Deeply strange yet strangely charming Ujicha’s Buddhist body horror conspiracy thriller is undeniably dark but also imbued with a sense of ironic playfulness in its truly bizarre cosmology.
Original trailer (English subtitles)