Poem (哥, Akio Jissoji, 1972)

Poem dvd coverThere might be a temptation to view Akio Jissoji’s “Buddhist Trilogy” as an intensely Japanese affair given its obvious preoccupation with Eastern religious thought and background dialogue with the political confusion of the day, but like fellow New Wave outsider Kiju Yoshida, Jissoji had studied French literature and there is something classically European about his nihilistic ennui in the midst of a decaying social order. Poem (, Uta), the trilogy’s final instalment, bears this out most of all as the servant boy of a noble house, secretly its spiritual heir, alone attempts to resist the march of time to save the natural essence of a culture about to eclipse itself in consumerist emptiness.

Jun (Saburo Shinoda), a strange young man, is a servant/legal clerk to a lawyer, Yasushi (Shin Kishida), who is the oldest son of the Moriyama family. Though he has inherited stewardship of the house and mountains, Yasushi and his wife Natsuko (Eiko Yanami) long to break free of its traditionalist constraints by ripping it apart and replacing tatami mat comfort with Western modernity. They can’t do that, however, because old Moriyama (Kanjuro Arashi), Yasushi’s father, is still alive and Yasushi doesn’t particularly want to have to talk to him. Meanwhile, the spacious mansion is also shared by a legal student, Wada (Ryo Tamura), who is kind of interning with Yasushi while repeatedly failing the bar exam, and the family’s maid Fujino (Hiroko Sakurai).   

Unlike Yasushi, Jun sees his life’s purpose as serving the Moriyama family. Intensely worried that a fire may engulf this fine house built with only the best Japanese cedar, Jun gets up every night at midnight and patrols with an electric torch, looking for loose sparks. One night he finds some, though not the kind he was expecting, on accidentally witnessing Wada make love to Fujino. Apparently uninterested, Jun looks it over and moves on while the lady of the house, Natsuko, starved of affection by her impotent husband, finds herself stirred by such unexpected eroticism.

Yasushi’s physical impotence is perhaps merely a manifestation emasculated powerlessness as the oldest son of a noble house who, nevertheless, wields no real power and is entirely unable to make decisions for himself. Yet his big case at work is thrown into confusion when his social climbing client suddenly tries to have his partner, Arita (Haruhiko Okamura), removed days before the court hearing because it might look nicer to have someone of Moriyama’s standing representing him. Even so, Yasushi is so clueless with the modern world that he needs Jun, a calligraphy enthusiast and advocate for the old, to operate the photocopier because he doesn’t know how (and neither does Wada). Only Jun, in another contradiction, insists on working to rule and leaving at 5pm because his “main job” is protecting the house and serving the Moriyama family, not Yasushi. Jun allows himself to be seduced by Natusko on the grounds that if she does not receive sexual satisfaction inside the house she will need to look for it outside which could bring shame on the Moriyama name. Finding out his wife is sleeping with another man, the weird servant boy no less, Yasushi doesn’t even care (besides being mildly turned on), as long as she doesn’t do anything which might arouse “rumours”.

The dirty secret that neither Yasushi or his debauched brother Toru (Eishin Tono) know is that Jun, whose name means “pure”, is their illegitimate half-brother that their father had with a maid. As we later discover, old Moriyama plans to divide his estate not in two but three, believing that it hardly matters anyway because division, in a break with the system of traditional succession by the oldest son, will be the end of the Moriyama family. He may well have a point as neither Yasushi, who eventually abandons the house to Toru and escapes to Kyoto, or his brother are interested in legacy. Once Moriyama passes, they plan to sell the entire plot, mountains and trees and all, to developers. In fact, the house already technically belongs to someone else because as soon as he moved in Toru started taking out exorbitant loans to fund his wastrel playboy lifestyle and has already figured out the jig is up and they’re all broke. Only Jun, who hears the voice of the mountains as if it were the voice of existence itself, is desperate to save the family name though he is at this point almost beyond saving himself.

Looking for the “absolute” in tombstones, Jun is told that only darkness exists inside. Yet he is certain that as long as form survives, content can return. He sees the Moriyamas’ forests as the essence of an older Japan and their untouched natural beauty the rock on which their souls are anchored. Yet his half-brothers oppose him. For them, Japan, even the world, is already ruined and nothing worth protecting remains. Existence itself is nothing more than a dream, and suicide no different. They no longer feel they can live “in such an age”.

Yet Jun, his father’s spiritual heir even if he doesn’t know it, keeps reaching, perhaps not quite hoping but demanding even in his powerlessness which may, in a sense result in a kind of transcendence in its purity. Unlike the ambiguously hopeful ending of This Transient Life, or the urgent ominousness of that of Mandala, Poem ends in defeat and futility, suggesting that time cannot be stopped or progress arrested even by those who seek the eternity of enlightenment. And so Jissoji brings us full circle by showing us a world in entropy unsalvageable in the cruelty of its contradictions.


Poem is the third 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.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Mandala (曼陀羅, Akio Jissoji, 1971)

Mandala jissoji poster 2Politically speaking, the Japan of 1971 was trapped in a kind of limbo. The student movement had been dealt a serious blow with widespread supressionary measures in the run-up to the renewal of the ANPO treaty in 1970, which was finally signed despite opposition. It was not, however, yet dead and would stumble on, losing its way, until the climactic events of Asama-Sanso in 1972. Following hot on the heels of his radical This Transient Life, Akio Jissoji’s second film for ATG Mandala (曼陀羅) finds him exploring just this conflict as two young men look for “utopia” in an escape from the tyranny of time.

Kyoto uni students Shinichi (Koji Shimizu) and Hiroshi (Ryo Tamura) have taken their girlfriends to a strange little beachside inn for a spot of wife swapping. Where Shinichi’s girlfriend Yukiko (Akiko Mori) is only too happy to oblige her boyfriend’s whims, Hiroshi’s squeeze Yasuko (Ryo Tamura) goes along with it but instantly regrets her decision. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to them, the couples are being spied on by weird ultra-Buddhist cult leader Maki (Shin Kishida) who comes to the conclusion that Shinichi and Yukiko are good candidates to add to their commune which is built around the concepts of agriculture and eroticism. Maki’s violent recruitment method is knocking out the guys and then subduing the women so they can be raped by cult members and thereby inducted.

Maki’s strange philosophy which posits a new “utopian” future born of a return to a more primitive way of life in which love does not exist and sex is a free and natural act whose only purpose is reproduction, wins an acolyte of Shinichi because of its key offering – the ability to stall time. Always looking for a way to be dead yet alive, Shinichi is obsessed with the idea of stillness. Movement is the image of time passing. Coming to and finding the comatose, naked body of Yukiko lying on the beach after being raped by Maki’s minions, Shinichi cannot resist the urge to have sex with her “lifeless” body (which she apparently consents to, playing dead even after regaining consciousness part way through). Yukiko too confesses her own fantasy of being ravished as a corpse, a body outside of conscious time.

Shinichi, proclaiming he no longer believes in the future or in that a classless anti-State will ever arise, leaves the struggle and joins Maki’s atavistic utopia to which only those who “deny time and history” are permitted. Hiroshi, meanwhile, berates him for betraying the “continuous revolution” while he himself is on the run having left university after a disagreement with his Trotskyist protest group. The two men are each fleeing the centre and heading in different directions if perhaps ultimately bound for a similar destination. A hyper individualist, Hiroshi declares that there is no such thing as mankind, only a confluence of individuals, with the exception perhaps of those who have dedicated themselves to religion. He doesn’t want the child that Yasuko is carrying, not because he fears it may be Shinichi’s, but because he does not see the point in contributing to “the multiplication of mankind”, which is a key tenet of of Maki’s primitivist manifesto.

Unlike Hiroshi, Yasuko is not seeking revolution but conventionality. She wants the baby, and perhaps a marriage. At the end of her tether, having suffered horribly at the hands of Maki’s minions, she draws a small cottage with a friendly bird flying above as if to symbolise the simple dream that has been destroyed by the cruelty of men. Too late, Hiroshi realises that his irritation with Yasuko was simply a reaction against the shadow of himself he saw reflected in her, and he cannot forgive those who have caused her harm.

Harm there is plenty. Maki’s vile philosophy, overseen by his shaman wife (Yoshihiro Wakabayashi), supposedly the embodiment of many gods, strips women of their right to autonomy, insisting that “love” is an unwelcome modern sophistication which should be replaced by “benevolence” in an egalitarian affection for all mankind. In “ancient times”, he says, a woman would willingly submit to a man and, therefore, there was no such thing as “rape”. “A woman’s silence and resistance make a man a rapist” he tells his minions while Shinichi is busy raping the latest kidnap victim in a room equipped with CCTV for Maki to watch from behind a screen. His tenet of fecundity, both in terms of agriculture and human reproduction, comes at the cost of basic human decency and reduces the role of women to mere vessels for men’s desires.

Throughout the history of Japanese cinema, “love” has indeed been the destabilising, individualising force which threatens the social fabric, but for Maki it serves as a palpable evil. Like Hiroshi, he too believes that men exist as individuals, but also that “benevolence” could raise them to become a “community”. Hiroshi wants to live in a world of revolution, free of charisma and religion, but Shinichi seems to have found peace in atavistic simplicity. Faced with the choice, Hiroshi again chooses individualism, declaring that he would rather die alone than go mad along with everyone else. Yet his frustration may perhaps take him to a dark and unexpected place that sees him pick up a sword and a copy of the Manyoshu as if on some sort of nationalistic mission of revenge against an intransigent government and society. Revolutions fail, and then they start again. Hiroshi has perhaps picked a side, even if that side is merely opposition, but what he’s chosen is movement, action, maybe even life however fleeting, over the cold meaninglessness of Maki’s grand plan for a primitivist utopia.


Mandala is the second 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.

Original trailer (English subtitles, NSFW)

This Transient Life (無常, Akio Jissoji, 1970)

this transient life poster“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)

Blue Lake Woman (青い沼の女, Akio Jissoji, 1986)

vlcsnap-2016-11-15-01h56m08s744Akio Jissoji had a wide ranging career which encompassed everything from the Buddhist trilogy of avant-garde films he made for ATG to the Ultraman TV show. Post-ATG, he found himself increasingly working in television but aside from the children’s special effects heavy TV series, Jissoji also made time for a number of small screen movies including Blue Lake Woman (青い沼の女, Aoi Numa no Onna), an adaptation of a classic story from Japan’s master of the ghost story, Kyoka Izumi. Unsettling and filled with surrealist imagery, Blue Lake Woman makes few concessions to the small screen other than in its slightly lower production values.

Successful artist Nagare had a serious following out with one of his oldest friends five years ago and is so rather stunned to receive an invitation to his wedding. Nagare had been invited to paint the portrait of Takigawa’s father and then asked to stay at his home for an extended period whilst Takigawa travelled in Europe buying art. Tokigawa’s father was old and frail and therefore retired to an annex each night at 8pm leaving Nagare entirely alone in the house alongside Takigawa’s wife, Mizue. The inevitable occurs when the lonely and neglected Mizue falls for the handsome painter but the romance turns dark when she talks Nagare into a double suicide at Blue Lake. Mizue drowns herself but Nagare survives only to be rescued and confined to a mental hospital.

Now five years later Takigawa wants to forget (if not quite forgive) the past and start again with a new wife by his side. The funny thing is wife number two, Ameko, is the spitting image of Mizue. When Takigawa once again asks him to stay alone in the house with his new wife whilst he jets off to America, Nagare begins to wonder exactly what’s going on. Staying at the house a second time, Nagare finds himself haunted by the ghost of the woman who died for him, but whose sacrifice he ultimately rejected. Mizue seems to want him to come to her at the bottom of Blue Lake, but Nagare still lacks the courage to take his own life, if not the inclination. Thinking of Mizue but inevitably becoming closer to Ameko, Nagare is trapped between the living and the dead but it turns out there may be more than supernatural intrigue to his darkly romantic adventures.

Jissoji creates an oppressive and creepy atmosphere for the woodland mansion noisy with the sound of a hundred ticking clocks, filled with shadows and shot from odd angles. Nagare begins to dream strange dreams in which Mizue comes to him, leaving watery footprints and her signature comb behind her to indicate that her presence is not limited to the dream world. Complaining that she’s “alive” beneath the mud next to Blue Lake where she’s cold and lonely, Mizue waits for him to make good on his promise and join her there. Nagare remains unsure if this Mizue is a manifestation of her grudge towards him, or simply a manifestation of his own guilt in allowing her to die alone.

Trapped in Vertigo-esque conundrum torn between the living Ameko and the dead Mizue, Nagare
finds himself in an impossible position unable to clearly distinguish between the two women, at one point physically attacking Ameko believing her to be Mizue’s ghost. It remains unclear if the resemblance between Mizue and Ameko is real or a figment of Nagare’s imagination prompted by both women’s position as Takigawa’s wife and by their watery names (“mizue” literally meaning “water picture” and “Ameko” “rain child”) both of which lead him straight back to Blue Lake. If it’s death Nagare is chasing rather than either women or friendship, he is ultimately unable to follow through on his desires all the while protesting that it’s “desire” which holds him among the living.

The supernatural elements are emphasised and undercut by turns as Nagare discovers their may be a more solid, real world cause for the strange events plaguing him. Still, the past continues to haunt Nagare in one form or another leaving unexplained and half remembered events to linger in his memory, rendering his reality continually unstable. As her name suggests, the ghostly Mizue is always shown in a hazy, watery blue, radiating waves of unease designed to pull Nagare back to the failure of his love suicide and at least as far as his art life in concerned, there’s part of him always submerged beneath the waters of Blue Lake. Even if not quite reaching big screen standards, Blue Lake Woman displays high production values for a 1980s television special anchored by naturalistic performances and innovative camera technique. Filled with Jissoji’s idiosyncratic surrealist imagery, Blue Lake Woman is a haunting, gothic ghost story which refuses to give up on its supernatural chills even whilst proffering a more rational explanation for all of its strange goings on.