This Transient Life (Mujo) is, on the surface, a sordid tale about the interaction between incest, immorality and Buddhism. Dig a little deeper and that's exactly what it continues to turn out to be. The lead character is Masao, a young man who shuns the path laid down by his rich father to take over his trading business, instead we see him idolise Buddhist sculpture and spend his days laconically with prostitutes and reading books. His sister Yuri similarly lives how she chooses having turned down two marriage proposals preferring to be close to home and the local monastery. When a playful scene between Yuri and Masao turns into a lustful embrace, the siblings' bond becomes sexual rather than familial and this sets the tone for the rest of the film.
When the monk Ogino discovers their secret, he urges Masao to leave the village and he does so to become the apprentice of a master sculpture of icons of the Buddha. Throughout the film, Buddhism shows us that life fades quickly and existential questions of how to live ones life are asked. Should one be pure and live by the codes set by religion, or should those very teachings, of the impermanence of life and its swift passing, be a reason to create ones own morality and fear no hell and covet no afterlife?
Director Jissoji Akio develops these stories masterfully with constantly shifting camera movements (Ozu he is not) and angles that would make Orson Welles brim with admiration. The expressive film language ranges from pendulum-like tracking shots to extreme close- ups reminding us of the film's arts roots. The film is stunningly crisp and beautifully shot and it is this style that carries the viewer into the heart of the story's conclusion. At times surreal, always spellbinding, this film deserves to be among the pantheon of the greats of 60's and 70's Japanese cinema.
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