Suffering of Ninko (仁光の受難, Norihiro Niwatsukino, 2016)

suffering-of-ninkoAll 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)

The Tale of Iya (祖谷物語 -おくのひと-, Tetsuichiro Tsuta, 2013)

1Japanese cinema has certainly been no stranger to the discussion of environmental issues from Studio Ghibli’s concerns about the modern society’s encroachment into the natural world to the ultra modern concerns about pollution and the dangers of nuclear disasters. However, they’ve rarely been addressed to poetically as in The Tale of Iya which is an extraordinarily rich examination of man and the landscape. Tinged with magical realism and surreal juxtapositions, The Tale of Iya is an oddly wonderful experience in the broadest sense of the word.

Film begins with a vast expanse of deep snow in which a lone figure dressed in traditional blue mountain dress with a conical straw hat is making an everyday journey to a local shrine. This could be a scene from any Jidaigeki or even a woodblock print were it not for the crashed car the old man finds a little further into his journey. A woman has been thrown through the windscreen and is lying motionless the bonnet. The old man gives the incongruous scene a quizzical look, but moves on along his planned path. Then, however, even more strangely he finds a little pink bundle by the side of a frozen river. This time he does stop and scoop the infant up. A jump cut sees us flash forward to around fifteen years later as teenage girl dressed in pink gets up to make breakfast for her ‘grandfather’  – the old man of the mountains. On her way to the local school she passes an old lady who’s taken to making sack mannequins which seem to do their part to make up the population of this rapidly declining mountain village.

The newly born sack people aren’t the only newcomers though – in an attempt at modernisation, the town planning committee have elected to build a tunnel which will connect them to the main road and make transportation easier. However, this has met with strong opposition from ‘environmental groups’ represented by an American eco-warrior. Amongst these strangers is another from Tokyo who seems to have come for an unknown reason but eventually decides to stay and attempt to farm the land. Iya is certainly very beautiful, but country life is also hard and entirely dependent on the weather. The young people long to leave for the comparative excitement of the city. City people though long for the simplicity of a long forgotten country life.

The film begins in a more or less naturalistic style filled with the most beautiful cinematography of snow covered vistas and foggy mountains. However, a strong seam of surreality constantly builds throughout the film until it reaches the final third and almost becomes a sort of science-fiction film about a magical environmental product that can clean polluted rivers down to near perfect clarity. Folklore beliefs and practices run side by side with a more poetic slice of magical realism that is jarring at first (and actually a tiny bit frightening) but the film’s surreal and dreamlike imagery is likely to be the thing that lingers longest.

A Tale of Iya also manages to offer a broadly nuanced and balanced view of the nature of country life and concerns about the environment. This is a remote town with a dwindling population – the new tunnel will ease communication, ultimately make lives safer and perhaps stop so many young people leaving the area altogether. The local people are therefore very much in favour of the new tunnel and many of them actually work for the construction company who are building it. The only opposition to the bridge is from a group of foreigners who are living in a commune but come down from the mountain every day to shout ‘save Iya’ and various ‘shame on you’ type comments (in English) at the construction team. The irony being that their ‘commune’ run in a typical communal farming style with hundreds of ‘save Iya’ billboards might actually be the biggest eye-sore in the area.

That’s not to say the film isn’t in favour of conservation or that it feels all construction is beneficial (quite the reverse) but it is eager to present a fair comment on both sides of the problem. Similarly, it isn’t afraid to point out that this ancient way of life is extremely difficult. Kudo, who’s arrived from Tokyo and looks so jumpy all the time one wonders if he left in a hurry, is eager to learn about traditional farming. He looks so pleased with himself when he’s finally mastered how to water crops in the traditional way, not to mention that torturous looking two buckets on a stick water carrying device. It’s not long before he’s taken up the self sufficient life but the problem with that is you have to do everything yourself – no electric, no running water (other than that which runs in a stream), no sanitation and in short no safety net. Muddling through and celebrating small victories is fine in the blistering heat of summer but as the first snow falls and you don’t have enough winter stores, death from cold or starvation (or both) is a very real possibility. City people romanticise country life thinking it’s ‘easier’ or admiring its ‘simplicity’ but whatever it gives it also takes.

At 169 minutes, there’s no point in denying A Tale of Iya is an extremely long film that moves a stately pace. Undeniably some viewers will be put off by its epic running time and frequent flights of fancy but those who stay the distance will be richly rewarded. Magical, beautiful and finally profoundly moving, A Tale of Iya is an incredibly heady brew that stays in the mind long after it finishes. Truly ‘wonderful’ in every sense of the word, A Tale of Iya deserves to be much more widely seen.

First published by UK Anime Network.