Creators from Japan tend to be known outside their home country in a binary way: either known for just about all of what they do, or not known at all. Akio Jissōji is something of an exception in that when he was known outside of Japan, it was generally only for one part of his career — his TV and film work for younger viewers, mainly for the Ultraman franchise. But until recently he was hardly known at all for his trilogy of Buddhist-themed films, boundary-pushing independent productions created under the aegis of the avant-garde Art Theatre Guild. Never distributed in English, seen only at film festivals or by way of bootlegs, they took on a quasi-legendary quality. Even David Desser's sourcebook on the Japanese New Wave, Eros Plus Massacre, mentions neither Jissōji nor these films. Now Arrow Academy has, after some delay, released all three movies — Mujō/This Transient Life (無常), Mandala (曼陀羅), and Uta/Poem (哥) — in a box set with lavish extras and newly restored transfers. My personal feelings about them are mixed, as they are difficult films by design, and their "trangressive" qualities sometimes come off as outright regressive. But I'm still grateful they can be at last seen by those other than the hardcore faithful.
A trilogy in three parts
Call it a trilogy in three parts, if you will: each of the films in the set is informed by or touches on some aspect of Buddhist thought, although the main action is elsewhere. Two of the stories (This Transient Life, Poem) deal with sexual conflicts within a family; the third (Mandala) is closer to one of the many turbulent exploitation films released in the late Sixties that fused leftist politics and edgy softcore porn. Some of my hesitancy about recommending them comes from how they fit into subgenres of filmmaking that might not be familiar to English-speaking audiences, even as that material becomes more readily available. if you've seen the likes of Funeral Parade Of Roses, for instance, you'll be less at odds with these movies than most.
This Transient Life deals with brother Masao and sister Yuri, both in their early adult years, who harbor inchoate incestuous feelings for each other. Their father wants Yuri married off for the sake of perpetuating the dynasty, but she's refused all her suitors. Masao's other obsession, aside from his sister, is images of Buddhist statuary, and so he apprentices himself to a local sculptor to help create a statue of Kannon. At first they manage to conceal their secret from their parents, but two others force it to the surface: the family houseboy who has a crush on Yuri, and a Buddhist priest who struggles (albeit in a rather moralizing way) to keep Masao's most amoral impulses from taking over.
Mandala is easily the least accessible film of the three. The first half-hour or so makes it difficult to tell what's going on or even who the movie is really about, or to what end. At a bizarre-looking motel near the sea, two couples swap lovers. Both groups are part of a student protest group. Neither realize they are being spied on by a Svengali-esque cult leader, who creates bizarre situations for likely candidates for indoctrination and exploits their reactions. His cult has a retreat in the mountains, a mix of agrarian economics and shamanic religion, a Utopian place where progress is unneeded and time is meaningless. It seems like an ideal environment for Shinichi, one of the now-disillusioned student rebels. But the cult uses rape as an indoctrination system — both to subordinate women, and as a loyalty/conformance mechanism for the men — and the only surprise for how far things fall (and for Shinichi's final implied turn to nihilistic revolutionary violence) is how long it takes to get there.
Poem goes back to the family-drama flavor of the first film. Jun, a houseboy in his late teens or early twenties, lives with an ambitious country lawyer and his sex-starved wife. His life is lived with metronomic, internalized rigor: he works from precisely nine to five each day; he eats barely at all; his leisure time is spent copying the calligraphy from tombstones; and he patrols the grounds of the house every night with a flashlight. Everything outside of that simply does not exist for him. The rest of the family can't figure Jun out, but the wife uses sophistry of her own to get him to satisfy her in bed. Then the lawyer's dissolute brother shows up, and when the property Jun has sworn to protect passes into the brother's hands, Jun's stolid code of personal behavior becomes a weakness and not a strength.
Trangression, transcendence, transience
I have to be conscious of how my own familiarity with other movies adjacent to these three, so to speak, makes it easier for me to not feel repulsed by them. Art Theatre Guild productions erred on the side of being transgressive, and for a long time I myself used that term as if it were automatically a badge of merit: what's an envelope for if not to be pushed? But I got uneasy about how pushing the envelope could be done in bad faith. I don't think Jissōji is operating in bad faith with any of these films, though, just that the rewards may be tough to extract without some run-up.
Another possible obstacle is the way all three films lack for a character most audiences could identify with. Masao in This Transient Life revels in the way he stands outside of conventional morality, something that probably played far better in 1970, or at least more enthrallingly, than it does now. Shinichi in Mandala comes off the same way: his aims and his means of realizing those aims are almost too abstract to be relatable (like many purportedly intellectual heroes on film, he spends more time talking about his point of view than embodying it). Jun in Poem comes closest to being sympathetic, if only because he's the only halfway decent person in the whole thing. If anything he comes off more as a victim, since his decency seems more the product of compulsion than choice, and while that makes him pitiable rather than heroic or upstanding, it's enough of a contrast to work.
What I was always convinced of, though, was that Jissōji knew what he was doing and why he wanted to do it. Each movie has the same three-way tension — the allure of the eternal and ineffable as a solution to all worldly ills (by way of Buddhism, in various forms), the chaos of modernity as the source of those ills, and the unquenchable longing of human beings that know nothing of morals or boundaries. Each film emphasizes one of those elements a little more than the others — Mandala in the first, Poem in the second, and Transient Life in the third. Each time around, the tension between them is different; each time, the movie is an eyeful in a new way — Transient Life and Poem with their stark black-and-white photography; Mandala with its mix of black-and-white and color. (If there's one thing ATG movies share besides their transgressive tendencies, it's how they looked great on small budgets.)
Back when all I knew about these films was their titles and some general plot details, I speculated freely about how their Buddhist themes would manifest. Movies that self-consciously introduce religious, spiritual, or aspirational themes often degenerate into flabby tracts. The few movies I've seen that explicitly made themselves about such subjects and worked were idiosyncratic originals (Why Has Bodhi-dharma Left For The East?), or had their Buddhist content emerge spontaneously and subversively from the material (Groundhog Day). Jissōji's trilogy has explicitly Buddhist ingredients — the Kannon statue, the mandala used by the cult in its shrine room, the Buddhist calligraphy Jun obsessively copies — but they're one of the tentpoles that holds the movie up, an axis or pole around which the story revolves. What they have to give to the films is less about justifying them as "Buddhist" and more about how to use Buddhism's presence or ideas as an ingredient in an adult and provocative story. I think now of how Catholicism informed the work of the likes of Graham Greene and Shusaku Endo, without their works necessarily being "Catholic fiction".
The rest of Jissōji's career intrigues me even more now that I've seen these films. Yes, even his work on Ultraman, which according to former Tsubaraya Productions employee (and Zen teacher) Brad Warner was really out there. But also his wild adaptations of Edogawa Rampo and Sōseki Natsume, all of which I now have more reason than ever to revisit. And in time, I suppose, these three films as well, in all their frustrating and magnetic power.