15 May 2012 | chaos-rampant
The thousand eyes of concentration
OK, conventionally this is simple, a young samurai sets out to beat the archery record 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. 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, his mentor walks away alone as so often in westerns, in fact the whole carries the scent of a western.
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, and so a place underscoring the heroism of the protagonist's efforts, 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 that is the focus of Japanese living - from making war to meditation.
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. You should know these guys rival even Tibetans for some of the most arduous esoteric practice. 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.
In other hands a lot of this would be turned into a big deal; here nothing is stressed out for us, no one experiences sudden spiritual change that would smack the viewer with enlightenment. The arrangement is sparse but I daresay it's there.
A boy who needs to hit the mark thousands of times, and therefore will need to see right and concentrate 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.
Too many words. It is not as open as Naruse's Street without End, but it's an easier start.