Two student couples stumble upon a cult dedicated to promoting the primordial human state through rape and agriculture.Two student couples stumble upon a cult dedicated to promoting the primordial human state through rape and agriculture.Two student couples stumble upon a cult dedicated to promoting the primordial human state through rape and agriculture.
This "Buddhist Trilogy" is not about some kind of upbeat New-Age Buddhism. Rather, it considers human morality in relation to the Void, and presents a vision of life unconstrained by standard social norms. In "Mandara", it seems Jissoji takes a wholly amoral stance - the perspective "beyond good and evil" familiar from de Sade or Nietzsche. The plot involves extreme sexual violence and a bizarre coercive cult (one part Charles Manson and two parts Shinto animism).
The protagonists of "Mandara" are leftist student radicals; it's implied their 1968 idealism has degenerated into 1971 nihilism. From our era, it's very difficult to understand the attitudes of this milieu. The biggest flaw of the film is that all the characters are too strange and mysterious to identify with or empathize with. They appear as lawless libertine weirdos, whose motivations are opaque.
In Jissoji's previous film, one character's non-moral actions are set up against everyone else's traditional ethical values. However, in "Mandara", social norms don't even enter the frame: it's a world in which everyone is desperate and on edge, and explosive violence is welcomed. The ethical questions get pushed well past the point of reckoning -- how much sexual violence should the viewer have to endure witnessing? Can the viewer even begin to debate the film's positions, if the director makes an entry point so difficult?
There is a lot to admire in this film though, and I'm glad I didn't give up at the first scene of sexual assault. "Mandara" is a serious arthouse film, not a brainless "pink film". It contains real philosophical (and even theological) content. It's best to understand "Mandara" through lens of the political moment of 1971: in the aftermath of 1968s global student uprisings, radicals and progressives became pessimistic and bitter, and were willing to entertain the idea of burning down the system, since it seemed impossible to change it. The violent destruction of an insane world is a common theme of cinema of the era, as in Godard's "Weekend", "Themroc", "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest". I'm no lover of amorality, but Jissoji deserves admiration for his dedication to his extreme vision.
"Mandara" is not an easy film to understand or enjoy...and yet, any true lover of cinema should see it, because visually it's quite amazing. Nearly every shot overwhelms with the beauty of its composition. There's a weird psychedelic quality to all the proceedings. Interiors are shot to exaggerate a scene's mood, as in Antonioni's films, and exteriors look like no other film. It's a pity "Mandara" would alienate most viewers, with its unappealing characters and extreme "beyond good and evil" ethics...because it's incredible to look at.
So...here's a film for deep cinephiles, leftist radicals, fans of sexual violence, decadent Shinto acolytes, or just extreme weirdos (like me). Everyone else should probably proceed with caution.
- Jun 29, 2020