“People should do whatever pleases them, it’s because people suppress their desires that the world has become so complicated” the “hero” of Akio Jissoji’s 1970 Buddhist epic This Transient Life (無常, Mujo) impassively intones, “If we just do whatever pleases us, then everything will turn out fine”. As we will see, there are definite problems with Masao’s (Ryo Tamura) philosophy, but he may have something in the inherent paradox of Buddhism which finds serenity in nothingness while decrying nihilism.
We first meet Masao, a wealthy young man from a noble family, jumping over a wall in defiant violation of a no trespassing sign. He is in hiding, avoiding going home because his austere father (Kozo Yamamura) is due to arrive for another dose of parental oppression. His sister, Yuri (Michiko Tsukasa), comes to fetch him knowing that they cannot resist forever. Like her brother who rejects university and the corporate life, Yuri rejects marriage and seems intent on deciding her own future, only she does not seem to have any other path in mind. Left alone in the house while their parents attend a family function, disinviting the kids because of their ongoing recalcitrance, the siblings put on a pair of noh masks and chase each other around the house. Gradually a primal spirit takes over. Masao seduces his own sister, beginning a dangerous and necessarily illicit affair for no other reason than to prove that he can.
Ogino (Haruhiko Okamura), a reluctant Buddhist priest at the local temple who is perhaps himself in love with Yuri though apparently unwilling to pursue her even though there is nothing in his religion which forbids him, later takes Masao to task for his dark philosophy. Branding him a chaos agent who creates hell wherever he goes, Ogino urges him to absent himself from the society of others, go travelling, keep his hedonistic nihilism to himself. Masao, however, counters that he has only made the world more “colourful”, that in the end all he has done is dig out the true essence from the hearts of those around him. People do what they want, and nothing he says or does is in any way relevant save that they each faced their own destinies as they intersected with his. To Ogino’s mind, being overly aware of your destiny is no good thing, in fact Buddha will place his hand over your eyes to prevent just that, but to Masao the power to discern his own fate that which gives him the terrifying power to act solely according to his desires.
Meanwhile, the men around him seem to flounder in their own repression. Discovering the transgressive relationship between Masao and his sister, Ogino keeps quiet but finds himself caressing a statue of the goddess Kanon, while the family’s servant Iwashita (Kotobuki Hananomoto) secretly peeps on Yuri in the bath, and Masao’s later mentor, the sculptor Mori (Eiji Okada), actively encourages him to sleep with his much younger wife looking on as he does. “Women are nothing” Masao coldly exclaims, they are “curious animals” who want “immediate pleasure”. Seduced by Mori’s lonely wife Reiko (Mitsuko Tanaka), he later leaves decrying her as a whore who has commodified the act of love as if she were merely a receptacle for his desires much like the shapeless wood which receives the passions of the sculptor and eventually assumes its chosen form.
Masao and Yuri rebel against conventionality and bourgeois values through the ultimate taboo, bearing out Ogino’s criticism of Masao’s philosophy as “nothing but disorder”. Their transgression spirals and informs others. A disruptive influence in his master’s household, Masao pushes Mori’s resentful son (Isao Sasaki) into a quasi-incestuous relationship with his step-mother, while pushing his sister into a socially transgressive marriage to a servant to cover-up the “crime” of a child conceived not only out wedlock but with incestuous blood. He absolves himself for the blood on his hands claiming that every man makes his own choice, and posits himself as the only truly enlightened being as an embodiment of realised desire. Ogino calls him a mad man, but he alone is able to achieve a kind of enlightenment and enter a higher plane, transcending normal human consciousness. “Life and death are a great matter, treasure your time” the title card advises us. Masao rejects the “unappealing” simplicity of heaven for the chaotic pleasures of a transient existence, impressing his own desires on a repressive society and watching indifferently as their terrible flowers bloom.
This Transient Life is the first of four films included in Arrow’s Akio Jissoji: The Buddhist Trilogy box set which also features an introduction and selected scene commentaries by scholar of the Japanese New Wave David Desser plus a 60-page booklet with new writing by Tom Mes and Anton Bitel.
Opening scene (English subtitles)