domingo, 13 de março de 2011

Lovers Corner #2 - Akio Jissoji's Buddhist Trilogy

The Midnight Eye reviews of Jissoji's films, ostensibly a very well written piece which is almost the only critical source readily available on the subject, reads a spiritual importance in his films that should place Jissoji next to Dreyer and Bresson, it considers them succesful 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, the silence of God was answer enough to the spiritual anguish. 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 like Bergman, made films for the Art Theater Guild. Like his mentor Nagisa Oshima and like Oshima's inspiration 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 and stale. Jissoji's films then are not profound examinations of faith but radical portraits of rebellion, renderings of a contemporary society that will reflect the generation coming of age in it.
Buddhism in this case is the recipient of his scathing New Wave, Buddhist thought is formulated only to be rejected, to receive scathing contempt or bitter irony.
Mandalas are diagram symbols used as objects for meditation by esoteric Vajrayna traditions, they represent a sacred space for the concentration of the mind. What is revealed to take place inside this sacred space, how is our concentration challenged or rewarded?

(Mujo, 1970)

First, Jissoji's thesis:
The moral code and the transience of life
Masao's confrontation of the Buddhist monk in Mujo where he expounds on his personal realization on the nature and absence of good and evil, heaven or hell, and the nothingness of nirvana is an insurmountable attack that advocates liberation by smashing of moral boundaries, it promotes the pleasing of the will and the senses in the here and now. The path of pain and misery Masao's choices leave behind him are excused because he wasn't alone in doing them. If he can pervert another, isn't that equally the other's fault for allowing it to happen, the movie asks. And if life is transient, as the title says, why shouldn't we give in to our pleasure, devote ourselves to it at the cost of everything else?

In Mandala Jissoji grapples with the idea of emptiness. Shunyata, in Japanese, posits that no object consists of a solid core, that 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, by enrolling in a secret society that advocates eroticism as a means of achieving 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 Koji Wakamatsu and Masao Adachi, would likely approve.

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 focuses his devotional attention on writing inscriptions for tombstones. In one of his nightly tours he sees something he shouldn't have. It seems for Jissoji, the perverse pleasure of portraying him as a pillar of moral behaviour for the duration of the film is to finally 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, the houseboy, spends his time shuddering helpless, on his knees. The final image haunts with the futility of faith in a crass capitalist world.

(Mujo, 1970)

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.
The game of seduction between brother and sister in Mujo is enacted with masks, the camera losing and finding them again behind a labyrinth of walls and panel doors before the incestuous ravishing can be consumated. This ritual dissolution of the self permits the forbidden, the taboo can be brought down by the adoption of another face.
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 metaphore 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. The escape was futile, and worse. 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 reflects it, allows time and the present moment to be tangibly felt.

(Mandara, 1971)

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 context. Jissoji's New Wave calls moral codes into question, considers meditation a practice of death, and the pursuit of liberation a terrible folly. What irreverence we discover here is done not without respect, though often with a tinge of sardonic humour.
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 for the benefit of the world. And the moral code of good and evil, the "sila" of the Buddhists, goes beyond the laws for social conduct, it is rather a realization that certain acts further our misery, others free us from it.
Be that as it may, 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 nihilist attempts at the same liberation, this is thoughtful cinema that raises valid points, New Wave expression that feels vibrant and alive. I love cameras that go on discoveries, that capture the image in motion, and in Mandala Jissoji orchestrates the most frenetic camerawork since the time of Welles and Kalatozov.
To return to the opening statement found in the Midnight Eye review, there's room enough to discuss Jissoji in the context of Dreyer, as filmmakers concerned with matters of the soul. 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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