A romanticised idea of returning to the land has become a frequent motif in recent independent Japanese cinema as disillusioned youngsters crave freedom in simplicity but there’s no use denying the life of a mountain ascetic is not for everyone. Based on a 1978 essay by Tsutomu Mizukami, The Zen Diary (土を喰らう十二ヵ月, Tsuchi wo Kurau Junigatsu) is part foodie feature comfort film in the vein of The Little Forest and part melancholy contemplation on the cycle of life along with its inevitable end.
Ageing widower Tsutomu (Kenji Sawada) lives in a cabin in the mountains with his beloved dog and is mostly self-sufficient, growing his fruit and vegetables for the largely vegetarian temple food he learned to cook as a novice monk. His peaceful days are sometimes interrupted by the arrival of his editor, Machiko (Takako Matsu ), in search of his latest manuscript but otherwise intent on staying for meal made with the freshest produce lovingly prepared by Tsutomu. It’s clear that their relationship is no longer strictly professional, if otherwise ill-defined, but equally that Tsutomu’s mountain life could itself be seen as a kind of limbo in his inability to move on from the death of his wife 13 years previously. Her ashes still sit in a box on his altar long after most would have them interred much to his elderly mother-in-law Chie’s (Tomoko Naraoka) consternation.
Chie is also a mountain ascetic living in a cabin not far from Tsutomu’s where she apparently supplies half the local area with home made miso paste. This life is hard enough for Tsutomu, but must be verging on the impossible for a woman of Chie’s age. Nevertheless, she perseveres while apparently estranged from her surviving son (Toshinori Omi) with whose wife she did not apparently get along. Because of this apparent disconnect, Tsutomu is for some reason held responsible for her existence despite not being a blood relative, while her son is confused by her lifestyle and more or less refuses to have anything to do with her.
Still, like Tsutomu she had perhaps also come to understand that life is movement and the simple routine of tending crops and preparing sustenance is the engine that drives existence. Divided into a series of vignettes following the traditional divisions of the year, the film lingers on seasonal details as Tsutomu painstakingly washes and prepares his homegrown veg and pickles to prepare for the upcoming season. A series of brushes with death, however, throw him into a contemplative mood realising that his ascetic lifestyle is also a flight from the inevitable and a refusal to face his fear of mortality. “Who in this world lives for eternity?” a folk song asks, while Tsutomu meditates on the zen teachings of his Buddhist upbringing and his life as a novice monk raised in a temple from the age of nine until he ran away at 13.
His reflections are perhaps more in keeping with the 1978 of the original essay than they are the contemporary setting of the film but also hint at the absurdity of class inequality. The crematorium has two doors, only one of them ornate, yet everyone leaves the same way and we are all equal in the end. He was sent to the temple because his family were too poor to feed him, though his temple life stood him in good stead for self-sufficiency and gave him the capacity for solitude. Though his family had lived on the edges of a graveyard, his father made coffins for a living, and temple life is necessarily bound up with death, Tsutomu had lived in its shadow never making his peace with mortality. Yet the seasons will also progress towards winter, and Tsutomu with them as his life draws towards its inevitable conclusion.
In any case, the film’s final words are those of thankfulness for all that life has to offer as represented in the fruits of the earth, gratefully received by an enlightened Tsutomu. In keeping with its subject matter, the unfussy yet often picturesque photography brings out the pleasures of a life of simplicity and the human warmth often to be found within it while also reflecting the intense melancholy of Tsutomu’s contemplative solitude as he meditates not only on mortality but what it is to live in sync with the rhythms of the natural world.
The Zen Diary screens at New York’s IFC Center on Feb. 12 & 16 as part of ACA Cinema Project’s New Films From Japan.
International trailer (English subtitles)