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Conventionally this is simple and transposed to some dusty border town it would have made for a very satisfying western; a young samurai sets out to beat the record in archery of the man who beat his father's record, which is his way of avenging his father who had been shamed by this and committed seppuku. He is mentored by another samurai who turns out to be a crucial link in the story. The most important sequence is him attempting the record, which is to hit a target several hundred feet away 8,000 times in the span of a single day.
In the end, the greenhorn archer gets valuable lessons in humility and perseverance, and the mentor walks away alone as so often in westerns.
But there is something else here that is a distinctly Japanese aspect of the work, tied to meditation and asymmetry.
Now Japanese audiences in Naruse's time, of some age at least, could not have failed to recognize the range where the competition takes place as a famed temple in Kyoto. This is the same place where Miyamoto Musashi is though to have fought one of his famous duels, this supplies the ordinary heroic connotations of the samurai's effort, a noble fight, virtue and ethos. Still, all through the arduous training and the competition itself the young man despairs, doubts, is clearly at odds with himself and lacking a clear mind.
Which brings us to another layer on top of the heroism of jidaigeki. The temple is Buddhist and belonging to the Tendai school, historically the common source of Japanese Zen - via China of course. You should know that these guys devote themselves to some of the most arduous esoteric practice, rivaling even Tibetans. One of the most striking aspects of the temple is a statue for the thousand armed Kannon-Avalokitesvara, the Japanese deity for compassion with her thousand hands reaching out to all sentient suffering beings, and also a thousand more life-size wooden statues of Kannon - we see these in the early scenes lining up a wall.
So a boy who needs to hit the mark thousands of times, who will need to see right thousands of times, but of course just shooting arrows or having a good mark will not do. He misses many, some are too weak to even reach the target. And the mentor who has already accomplished the extraordinary feat offering advice - a simple thing, he should not rest.
But nothing extremely remarkable happens in cinematic terms, no one experiences sudden spiritual change that would smack the viewer with enlightenment, and the whole is rather predictably resolved. It seems like no big deal. There is no direct connection with what I have just described, other than the temple being there, Kannon's statues. The arrangement is sparse, but it's there.
Point being this; when Zen Masters, rooted in Tendai culture among other things, spoke of an 'adobe of the asymmetrical', they meant an ordinary space, it could be a tea-room or garden, in terms of our film there is nothing showy about it, where out of ordinary elements, you sculpt an experience that does not necessarily represent or mean, the way Michelangelo's dome does, but IS beauty that has meaning in being sculpted complete by you.
It is the same with film viewing for me; which is why it's so hard to find filmmakers that layer sparsely enough, out of ordinary elements, so the opposite of Kubrick, the opposite of Bergman, to allow an experience to be sculpted that reflects nothing more than being one with it. Naruse does, every so often.
Too many words. If you have an interest in the above, you could try watching this. It is not as open as Naruse's Street without End, but it's an easier start.
Something to meditate upon.
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