1 March 2011 | chaos-rampant
Buddism and the New Wave of Akio Jissoji
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.