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Akio Jissoji is an obscure name to Western audiences. His work has only
been seen widely thru his work on the original Ultraman series although
it was usually uncredited in the American version. Possessed of strong
visual style, Jissoji's work is very distinctive, comparable to Orson
Welles or Carl Dreyer. Even his work on Ultraman (a children's program)
show his preference for unusual camera angles and unique visual
compositions. After his work in Japanese television, Jissoji found
himself working with the Art Theater Guild, an experimental film
company. They produced several films of his, Mandara being the second
one. Unfortunately, Jissoji shares with his fellow Japaese film makers
a fascination with S/M sexual practices and exhibits the usual Japanese
misogyny seen in "erotic" films of this time. Your willingness to watch
this sort of behavior will strongly effect your ability to sit though
Upon first viewing, one is struck by the visual compositions, image juxtaposition and the sound production. Actually that's all there is to be struck by for the first few minutes as it takes a while for the story to get going. I didn't mind as nearly every frame of this film is a masterwork of composition and camera movement. Unfortunately the verbal part of the film is problematic for several reasons. First, the dialog is very art-house which would probably be hard to follow in Japanese let alone a translation. Second, the English translation in the version I saw is very poor and frequently confusing. Third, the film almost requires a decent knowledge of Japanese Buddhist philosophy not just Buddhism in general. Fourth, the film seems very much a product of the turbulent times it was produced and the characters seem motivated by the issues of that time in Japan.
The story, as far as I could figure from the jumbled subtitles, is about a group of strange modern Buddhists who gain followers by assaulting couples that the leader has been watching and raping the women. The couples then become members of the sect! The group spends time performing ceremonies and discussing esoteric philosophy. Then once again rape and beat some new woman or one that's already in the sect. This might be meaningful to Japanese audiences but I admit to being in the dark. Unfortunately, the rape scenes go on for extended periods of time and due to the confusing translation they leave a stronger impression then the dialog. It's also possible that the rape scenes just assured the film makers an audience for an otherwise esoteric film. Also the film is over 2 hours long!
Sad, since this is otherwise one of the best looking films I've seen.
The Midnight Eye reviews of Jissoji's films, ostensibly a very well
written piece that is almost the only critical source readily
available, reads a spiritual importance that should place Jissoji next
to Dreyer and Bresson, it considers them successful films on Buddhist
thought. Stylistically they couldn't be more different but what about
the content, does Midnight Eye horribly misrepresent their intention?
"life and death are a great matter, transient and changing fast"
This is a mantra to the films. In all three of them, Mujo, Mandala, and Uta, Jissoji grapples with basic tenets of Buddist thought. Impermanence, emptiness, the practice and ethos of the faith, he calls these into question. For Bergman that question was posed and declined, it was the spiritual self doubt and the existential cry in an indifferent universe that mattered. The important thing to note as we enter into a dialectic with these films is that Jissoji, who was also brought up in a religious family, made films for the Art Theater Guild. Like his mentor Nagisa Oshima and like Oshima's mentor Yasuzo Masumura before him, he seeks out the individuality of his protagonists in a madness that defies society and liberates from it, in a youthful rejection of the old. Jissoji's films then are not profound examinations of faith but radical portraits of rebellion.
Mandalas are diagram symbols used as objects for meditation by esoteric Vajrayna traditions, they represent a sacred space for the concentration of the mind. So what is revealed to take place inside this sacred space, how is our concentration challenged or rewarded? First, Jissoji's thesis.
In Mandala Jissoji grapples with the idea of emptiness. Shunyata posits that no object consists of a solid core, and the idea of the self is an illusion. If we peel a cabbage we get the core, but if we peel an onion? The duality is pushed forward by two main characters, one yearns for a release from time, the condition that subjects living things to decay and death. He seeks that release in sex, and enrolls in a secret society that advocates eroticism as a means of ecstacy. The other is a student of radical politics, for him time is something he's willing to struggle against, and the eternal revolution towards a classless Marxist society is the realisation of that struggle. Within time, within the life we are allotted, we must strive to better the world. The radical politics of the New Wave shine better here. Oshima, but also people like Wakamatsu and Masao Adachi, would approve.
I love how in all three films the crucial turning point is consumated from behind masks, with something of a bestial or mystical nature. These moments are an apotheosis for Jissoji's cinema.
In a fascinating sequence in Mandala, we see the members of an utopian cult dance a dionysic dance around a fire wearing grotesque masks. These people are outside time now, as they desired all along, outside the self. From a Buddhist standpoint this is desirable. But Jissoji films the scene with an air of demonic perversity, he shows us that these human beings are not liberated in their wild dance after all, but rather the wild dance reveals their corrupt souls.
The ending of Mandala, like that of Uta hinted at above, is poignant in that aspect.
We see Shinichi and the members of the cult depart from a nameless shore on a ship. The metaphor is strong and can't be missed, these people are willing to literally pursue a life outside life. But as the movie fades in the next scene we see the shore littered with their corpses and the broken remains of their boat. Their faces in death are fixed in grimaces that reveal painful, horrid, final moments.
Beyond the thematic reaction, thought has been truly paid here. The business with masks is one, Buddhist tenets turned into visual clues is another. In Mujo, life was transient and so was the camera, life is in constant flux and so the placement of the actors often varies tremendously from shot to shot. In Mandala, Jissoji distorts space with widescreen lenses, literally creating the sacred space of a mandala. When Shinichi begins to live outside time, the movie turns black and white. In Uta, the total awareness of the present moment is rendered with the ticking sounds of a clock, and when the houseboy sits down to eat his tasteless grub, we get close shots of his throat swallowing. The boy maintains an unruptured state of concentration, and the camera follows that state.
I've tried to paint a vivid picture without many specifics (the films are rich in material to discuss) that hopefully places the films in a context. Jissoji's New Wave calls moral codes into question, considers meditation a practice of death, and the pursuit of liberation a terrible folly.
Buddhism is the recipient of his scathing New Wave and Buddhist thought is formulated only to be rejected, to receive scathing contempt or bitter irony.
From a spiritual standpoint, I disagree. Buddism is, deliberately or not, misrepresented in these films. But as New Wave I can't deny their power, and more, opposed to Godard's contemptuous attacks on the bourgeoisie or Wakamatsu's liberation from society through nihilism, this is thoughtful cinema that raises valid points, New Wave expression that feels vibrant and alive.
To return to the opening statement found in the Midnight Eye review, there's room enough to discuss Jissoji in the context of Dreyer. A more apt comparison, is to discuss him in the context of his peers. That he remains, along with Kazuo Kuroki, probably the most esoteric of the Nuberu Bagu is telling. Cinema is not a casually irreverent affair with the fashionable in films like Uta, it's difficult and demands we rise to the occasion, to join the discourse and maintain our own state of concentration.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Unconventional, uncomfortable and undecipherable. Akio Jissoji's
Mandara (or Mandala) is sandwiched between This Transient Life (1970)
and Poem (1972) in his unofficial Buddhism trilogy, a thought-provoking
string of films dedicated to uncovering Buddhist principles in modern
society. The trilogy was produced by Art Theatre Guild, responsible for
putting out some of the weirdest films on the face of the planet.
Unlike the other two films, this one is in color, although it randomly
likes to switch to B&W without explanation as the (painfully long)
The storyline is quite simple, but it's laid out in the most confusing and disorientating manner in order to make the film resemble an art-house labyrinth of sorts. It follows two student couples who fall in clutches of a strange neo-Buddhist sect which promotes behavior similar to that of human primordial state; they rape women (because in the Prehistoric times, love wasn't developed yet and females had no other chance but to consent) and do agricultural work. This oddball philosophy is expanded a bit in the film, but don't expect to get much out of it, partly because of the faulty subtitles. I like Allan Fish's theory that the film compares a human body to a cathedral; while both can be used as vessels to explore higher mental or physical states of being, the human body can be abused by rapist intruders the same way cathedrals can be wrecked by heathens.
The cult leader also believes that this twisted notion of sexuality is a way of escaping time itself and becoming free of both it and of limited consciousness. After the cult members try to reject their personalities through a masked dance, they embark on a metaphorical boat trip "to the other side", only to encounter death. Mandala, a Buddhist symbol which monks spend days drawing, only to destroy it, is illustrated through the cult's demise, their hideout being burned and their ship being wrecked.
The film opens with an expertly shot, beautiful scene of a couple making passionate love in organic bliss, set in a bright room of dazzling whiteness and accompanied by the sounds of waves crashing (while the rest of the film's sound design is composed of a creepy organ score and sounds of bells ringing). Sadly, this opening scene,as well as the opening 30 minutes, are the only entertaining parts of the movie.
The visuals are another story. I love how the movie doesn't even give a crap about the fact that the super-stylized photography doesn't really fit the story. It's just beautiful because it can be, and I like that approach. Following the zen principle of conflict, Jissoji contrasts natural sights with strange modernist architecture reminding of German expressionism. He wonderfully combines fish-eye lens, Hajime Sawatari's legendary nude photographs of young Japanese actresses, and visual trademarks of Japanese woodblock prints in order to create many lasting images.
Sadly, the majority of the film is completely incomprehensible and begs for context. Another surprising thing is that, besides all of the whatthef*ckery and surrealistic tomfoolery occurring in the film, it's strangely very boring at times and becomes more and more tedious as it goes on. It has some fantastic individual scenes alright, but altogether it just wasn't my cup of tea.
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