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Bella van Meel,
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.
The futility of the faith.
The young houseboy in Uta wakes up every night to patrol the house of a teacher with a flashlight. He leads an austere life of meditation and he focuses his devotional attention on writing inscriptions for tombstones. In one of his tours he sees something he shouldn't have. The pervert pleasure of portraying him as a pillar of moral behaviour for the duration of the film is to see the downfall. As the teacher and his elder brother conspire to take over the mountain property of their grandfather and turn it over to realtors for a profit, Renge spends his time shuddering helpless, on his knees. The final image haunts with the futility of faith and the spiritual in a crass capitalist world.
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 Uta, the mask is the figurative shroud of night. In the turning sequence where the houseboy makes his discovery in the dark of the house, Jissoji gives us unbroken silence and creaking floors, he gives us the beam of the flashlight lancing the dark. Amid this latenight quiet, the boy discovers temptation, life, a woman looking back at him.
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 does it too with him.
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, for one the "nothingness" of nirvana is not a rejection of consciousness, as Mujo posits, but rather a supreme consciousness, a true perception of the world as impermanent and everchanging. If life is like playing the piano, the enlightened doesn't stop playing it to become absorbed with the self, but, having tuned it to perfection, plays every note in harmony. And the moral code of good and evil, the "sila" of the Buddhists, is not a restriction of laws but rather a realization that certain acts further our misery, others free us from it.
But as New Wave I can't deny the power of these films, 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.
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