Existential Ecstasy: The Buddhist Trilogy by Akio Jissôji
Updated: Jun 9, 2021
*Some images NSFW*
An illicit affair between brother and sister. A cult whose violent form of recruitment is through rape. A houseboy dragged into the seedy existences the lady of the house, her husband, his brother, the maid and the apprentice. These are the stories that make up Akio Jissôji’s The Buddhist Trilogy. Jissôji’s career is most notable to western audiences as being the director of cult sci-fi series, Ultraman but some of his best work was with association of ATG (Art Theatre Guild). He worked closely with contemporaries such as Nagisa Ôshima (who wrote the screenplay to his first feature, 1969’s When Twilght Draws Near) and Kijū Yoshida, significant filmmakers of Japanese New Wave. The first in the trilogy won the Lorcarno Golden Leopard award in 1970 but slipped out of international circulation, in spite of the following films receiving equal praise and accolades. Despite remaining staples in their origin country of Japan, an influential addition to their film history, they have only, in the last few years, become widely available internationally. Major in their position within the Japanese New Wave movement, Jissôji’s trilogy, made up of This Transient Life (1970), Mandala (1971) and Poem (1972) are incredible, original films as subversive and shocking now as they were upon release.
I want to write about this series of films. I need to and yet I feel I lack the tools or eloquence to dissect what it is that makes them so powerful. Instead I’m going to do what I do best, which is lavish lot’ of descriptive words and hope somebody thinks their worth visiting themselves. Written by one of Japanese New Waves most significant writers and consistent collaborator on the Ultraman series, screenwriter Toshirô Ishidô (who wrote Ôshima’s 1960 political commentaries The Sun’s Burial and Night and Fog in Japan and Shohei Imamura’s 1989 drama Black Rain), they explore spiritual philosophies, the place of religion in a post-industrial world, sexuality and morality. Recurring players in the trilogy give the films continuity in its collaboration and exploration of metaphysical ideas; these include Ryô Tamura, Shin Kishida and Hiroko Sakurai. Ultimately, the taboo content and extremely provocative scenes within the trilogy can be hard for many to endure, but to fans of the avant-garde or Japanese cinema, they are an absolute must. Furthermore, as someone who knows the bare minimum about Buddhism and Shinto philosophy, these releases still resonated with me and proved to be incredibly emotive and impressive achievements of radical seventies cinema.
Jissôji’s style is something to behold. A fascinating character in the Japanese New Wave movement, his work is thoroughly modern and beautiful. He holds Buddhist imagery in his compositions and shots artfully. This Transient Life has a camera moving often by dolly, smoothly with its protagonist, gliding with them though their existence, where nothing of the materialistic or societal is comprehensive to him. Mandala has extreme uses of the wide angle lens, enhancing its own subject of voyeurism and the abnormal. And in Poem, the most accessible of the three films, he seeks high contrasts of light and shadow, thoughtful patience in his shot and scene construction. In all, he chooses unusual frames, giving characters large amounts of head room, capturing their smallness in the face of great ideas and concepts, room for thought. Otherwise, he is exploring textures of skin and surfaces, seeking out religious iconography and dense locations such as forests or shrines to capture the elaborateness of man’s spirituality and nature. Faces fascinate Jissôji as much as the figures of Buddhist statues or shrines, Zen gardens or reception rooms of aristocratic homes. He will capture their passion, pleasure, shame, doubt, beautifully capturing the human conundrum; spiritualism in the modern world.
In This Transient Life, the story of incest between siblings from a wealthy family, Masao and Yuri, unravels into a catalyst for deep reflection on morality and faith. Through sex and taboo, Jissôji’s characters are forced to deal with the repercussions of the act committed by Masao, a hedonistic, pseudo-intellectual. He further tries to understand the nothingness in Buddhism, reveling in each pleasure afforded to him as a young man. His own struggle with spiritual contentment finds him avoiding university, of which his father demands of him, eventually following his own bath to become an apprenticeship with a Buddhist sculptor, the only work in which he believes there is anything worthwhile; ‘One can’t become a Buddha, so one keeps making Buddhist sculptures.’
Masao and his sisters unions are shocking, long affairs that begin with childish games and lead to disastrous consequences. Their first tryst in their family home, in the presence of the family shrine and elders upon the walls which appear to look down on their ‘unholy’ union, is a deeply intense moment. The feeling that, under the watchful eye of the higher deities of religion and ancestry, we never escape the scrutiny of something beyond us is present in this scene, noted by Film Essayist Cinema Nippon in their video on the series of films (2019). They play with their parents Noh masks, as they did as children. Later, they join at night, whilst their parents are asleep and, with further increase to risk, out in the elements of the graveyard, close to the temple where they are seen by both a monk, Ogino, and the houseboy, Iwashita.
Yet, Jissôji refrains from observing their sexual unions as either right or wrong, that these characters struggles are gained through their pursuit of pleasure in correspondence with the Buddhist teachings. The cause and effect of the brother’s hedonism, the sister’s displacement and desire for love, the houseboy who lusts after Yuri, these people are slaves to their own desires, to an extent. He leaves it for the viewer to draw their own conclusion about these characters moral positions, or perhaps how humanist their struggles are.
Although, Masao is perhaps the most sound of these characters and clear of his intent and own disassociation with organized tradition, rejecting family and society as things of human construction. His basic philosophy is that if he lives his life doing exactly as he pleases, that everything will work out in the end. This ideology, ultimately, is one that is at the expense of those around him. But as he moves from one desire to the next, he is being honest with himself, where as those attempting to conform are driven to extremes; the other men of this story are repressed voyeurs, sexually frustrated. Ogino fondles statues of the merciful Buddha Kanno, whilst Iwashita flicks through porn magazines, extinguishing cigarettes on the private parts of women who eerily resemble his object of desire, Yuri. His behaviour exposes the others, as he states, 'These people only faced their own destiny when their lives crossed with mine'. Masao has a desire for life. When making love to his sister, he has visions of her in a Noh mask and in the form of a skeleton. His own view of her is wholly inconsistent, as Tom Mes discusses in his essay on the film, ‘… this only spurs him to greater craving of Yuri’s body. A reminder of death is also inherently one of life’. (2018)
Mandala is far more controversial, and notably the weakest of the three films. However, it does also feature some of my favourite compositions in Jissôji’s work and an opening scene both outrageous for its explicit nature but equally beautiful as two bodies writhe together in bliss, housed within the confines of a white room, intersected by framed of black and over-laid with the sound of the ocean. It contrasts dramatically with the violent, abhorrent sex scenes that follow and the metaphorical union that the film concludes with. Visually, it’s a dream of existential union.
Two students, Shinichi and Hiroshi, are at odds with their own opposing ideals as a socialist and disillusioned individualist. The men are both searching for something more meaningful than their fleeting carnal unions with their girlfriends Yukiko and Yasuko, exploring through sex with other partners, politics and eventually through the cult. Under the watchful eyes of the cult leader, Maki, Shinichi and Yukiko are ambushed on the beach, the woman raped and the man forced to watch leading to the recruitment of the two. The cult itself expects female members to prostitute themselves for income whilst the men go in search of new ‘recruits’. It is an environment formed on the sullying of ideals, contempt and violence. Yet it is their ‘values’ that the protagonists are drawn to, a life of ‘equality’, agriculture and pleasure. It becomes a commentary of revolutionary ideals in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s in Japan and the divide between student factions that quarreled over the details rather than the bigger picture, it’s characters Hiroshi and Shinichi at odds with Trotskyist ideals whilst the other has rejected the anti-state he once believed in all together, turning in on himself and embracing individualism. This political undercurrent I know very little about but those who have an interest in this should definitely look into the underlying theme and it’s correlation in the narrative. A conflict in ideologies, as Anton Bitel put it in his 2018 essay, Hiroshi and Shinichi’s final divide can be summarized in something quite simple: a clash of Faith and the Faithless.
Shinichi is a conflicted character. As mentioned before, he has thrown aside his ideals for a united, socialist future in order to see to his own idealisms, to seek meaning in his conflicting world, to seek a difficult to define ecstasy. It leads him down a path of abhorrent and deviant behaviors. He becomes obsessed with the idea of time, the passing and losing of it. Stemming from childhood, he seeks to stop it and to revel more in the moment, unable to face the immanency of death. Mostly, this can be seen in the necrophilic fantasies he has. Unable to have sex with his girlfriend unless she is unconscious, later the woman explains to Maki that it’s that he can’t bear a moving body, as movement represents time. He likes things still. His dream of revolution comes to a standstill, so must everything else. Equally rejecting the future and the present, he is willing to reside and revel in his moment of short-lived, unsatisfactory ecstasy.
Maki has a wife. Isolated from the others, she is chosen to be entwined in sexual acts with the gods, a strange antiquated figure in her kimono and white make-up, a contrast to the modern garb of the students that make up the cult. Solitary in her throngs of ecstasy, it is unclear whether the others, including Maki, believes that she is actually in unison with some transcendental entity of perhaps simply mad. Still, her scenes of rapture are all the more bizarre. Does she let them into her? Or is it that they take? Or is it that she avoids the greedy clutches of the real men of the cult? If the Gods are reaching out to her, can anyone else hear them? Or must blind faith be placed in such unsettling acts in the twentieth century? Through this we are able to see in Jissôji’s storytelling a distinction between the sexual ecstasy experienced through the religious planes, at the cults temple and the hotels where sexual encounters are under surveillance via CCTV, something highlighted by Henri de Corinth’s 2020 article, ‘freeing’ the women sexually and the mundanity of the ‘safe’ sex, in which consent is gained and the act is non-violent. That women and men are freed from terms such as ‘rape’, for it did not exist in ancient times, or so Maki wants to believe.
This is a hard to stomach concept in the film, but one must be able to comprehend the idea that Mandala is a provocative, titillating experience condoning the act and actually an exploration of Eros and the corruption and soiling of modern ideals in the face of a society equally torn by the future and archaism. In a future where all are equals, something never granted in the actuality of our long history on planet earth, then this idea of disassociating with the idea of rape because in ancient times the idea of it did not exist and that women were free for the taking like beasts, is redundant.
As in This Transient Life, Jissôji is exploring the individual’s discrepancy and challenging of the institutions, may it be societal or religious, exploring the challenge of modernism in a culture shrouded in it’s past. Not nearly so effectively, it still broaches the ‘Zen’ of its’ characters, to find pleasure is as much a part of life. But what that can be to one person, no one knows? And at what cost to others, should the pleasures of the individual be satiated? Idealism is all well and good, but where can morality come into play?
Finally we come to the last addition in the trilogy, Poem. By this time in the trilogy, audiences will be familiar with the players and the themes that Jissôji is exploring, but it is the culmination and understanding that enhances and already incredibly watchable film. The story unfolds around the Moriyama family. An illegitimate son is kept as a houseboy to his wealthy brother, a paralegal, and his bored wife. His life is meticulously scheduled to each minute, following a ritual of work, housework, eat and then sleep. He lives on mostly barley and takes etchings of symbols from shrines and gravestones. His room is littered with pages upon pages of kanji characters and calligraphy, deftly imitated. He displays reserve and capability, overseeing the maintenance and security of the property, cleaning and polishing every surface and by night patrolling the grounds with his flashlight, a beacon searching for any structural abnormalities. Despite being the illegitimate child of the head of Moriyama family, he displays amongst all of them a love and respect for the ancient name that he has been deprived of.
Meanwhile, his brother is weak-willed. He wants nothing more than to take the property and sell off all the assets and land of his family, in their possession for hundreds of years; he lacks respect for culture and tradition. The man has a live in apprentice. Lazy, having failed the bar exams multiple times, he is having an insincere affair with the maid. The lady of the house, catching on to the affair, begins to show signs of extreme sexual repression and dissatisfaction, in part due to a distant husband and through her disinterest in bearing him children, and seeks out the houseboy for her own pleasure. But he is not interested. Entirely indifferent.
There are all these sordid and sleazy things taking place in the household. Modern day dilemmas, people lost to their desires. The character that is the most disciplined and hard-working to the extent it becomes a risk to his own health, is considered lesser due to his illegitimacy. His values uphold the legacy of the Moriyama family, less of a matter to the younger generations. Rejecting the future and the past, the legitimate family revels in their own excess without a thought for the circumstances surrounding them, enabling them. Which leaves the houseboy in a lurch as his use and capability becomes wasted on them. This is evident in his need for routine, refusing to work later than five to help them with documents that need copying; instead he resumes his own routine of preservation. He doesn’t fit to their own individualist, selfish needs just as much as they don’t fit in his own universe. Once again we see the clash of archaism and modernist futility (de Corinth, 2020).
The Moriyama name is in decline, the family’s gradual breakdown by their own hand. Hundreds of years of history are attempting to be eradicated by the younger generation. But it is in this that we are seeing a total collapse in their own network. By having no faith in a future, they are literally carving a path forward in which there is no satisfying end in sight. Where in, the houseboy’s philosophy, a life of no want, leaves him with some satisfaction and purpose.
Jissôji’s choices in the film, they are some of his most interesting in the trilogy. Most notably the stark contrast in light and shadow’s the Gothicism of the night patrol scenes (Bale, 2018). He is far more restrained, opting for steady shots and interesting framing throughout most of the film, giving gravitas and a sense of hierarchy to his characters and the name of the Moriyama. But when it comes to the night, when the family are getting up to their most seedy actions, the intensity of the torch light shining on them is as much like being caught in headlights; the lady of the house, discovered peeping on the apprentice and the maid, a revelation of her own desire. The houseboy hardly fits in their lives as he also becomes the one to highlight their own corruption, made worse by his indifference to them. He is a presence in the home, a reminder of the generations before him watching down over the family, like in This Transient Life.
Poem lacks political drama. It becomes a personal journey of purpose and self. Textures and time; the intimacy of each routine in the houseboy’s life is perfectly filmed as he takes his etchings and meticulously cleans each sacred surface of the Moriyama house. The sounds are enhanced, so minute and deeply felt, thoughtfully, almost sensually, a meditation in self-control and the intricacies of these religiously reserved tasks he plays out. A way to adore love upon the name Moriyama. It contrasts dramatically with the textures and sounds of the apprentice and maid in the throes of passion, often happening in parallel to the houseboys work. These two are in it for their own pleasure.
But Jissôji will break this up, this stripped back soundscape, particularly in the latter half of the film, when he introduces to Summer, 3rd Movement from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. This stands out, not only for being the only film to have this sort of soundtrack, but also for its dramatic intensity as a piece. Often used as a way to capture internalized struggles and dramas, for major turning points in the plot, it is most prominent in the finale of the film during the Houseboys ultimate sacrifice of spiritual harmony. It’s both a tragic conclusion and interesting choice. The piece is loud and intense, violent in a film that lacks much of the viciousness of its predecessor – it becomes its ultimate turmoil.
So what, ultimately is Jissôji doing with The Buddhist Trilogy? What was his motive? Much like his contemporaries in Yoshida and Ôshima, his work titillates as much as it displays radical ideas and philosophies as Japan was entering its next cinematic stage, post-war. The New Wave movements liberalism was a major a statement, using sex and violence and creative experimentation to push the boundaries of art, history and culture. A society significantly torn by its nostalgic, antiquated sensibilities and its own progressiveness, perhaps notoriously and even admirably, the most contrary in its output - as de Corinth put it, ‘…Jissôji’s Japan reveals the struggle to distinguish the antiquated from the modern’. The collective efforts of the New wave directors pushed for change and rebellion in a scenario where there was much political unrest. An urge for revolution, to move forward into a more liberal world was most desired.
So what is it about The Buddhist Trilogy that stands out so significantly? First of all, its wildly original and modern. The restorations by Arrow Academy have been outstanding, but as a collection of films there is much that displaces the stories. They are not a product of 1970s’, but like most classics, stand in a realm that transcends any place and time in which it was made. The themes and desires of the stories are as much the current dilemma of a fast-evolving age as it was fifty years ago. Secondly, it’s entirely about the human condition. No matter how outrageous its content, Jissôji still finds some humanity in the perversion and nihilism. What we are seeing is not a depravity of another exploitative filmmaker, but the work of storyteller dissecting the mind frame of mankind, delving deep into the subconscious of our species. He is exposing us for what we are. The simple creatures we deny being. Philosophy, spirituality, sexuality, violence; these have been what have troubled people for thousands of years, now the genetic makeup of our individual downfall. Perhaps this is why the future is so hard to comprehend? Because in it, we see more of the same. Does the future make for change, or are we too arrogant to see that we cannot change, that we will all be divided and individualistic in our own way?
I’m spouting nonsense now. But The Buddhist Trilogy is complex. If we can honestly give up our materialistic desires, the modern world will flush those successful in this out; there just may not be any room for such spirituality in the future. Jissôji is not just asking this. He examines humanities harmony in the world. The more I think about it, the more it seems to be the lack of it. Whatever it is, Jissôji has made a series of film worth dissecting and digesting for many years to come. Even now, as I type this, I find myself as much the contrarian as I described previously. Both complex and coherent, the films establish the greatest of the Japanese New Wave, surpassing many of the works that were released at that time and pushing boundaries before many of his own contemporaries had. Probably my favourite of the cinematic era, The Buddhist Trilogy is truly a blessing to the film world, and not to be missed.
Buy the The Buddhist Trilogy here
BALE, E. (2018). Poem. First Edition. UK: Arrow Academy.
BITEL, A.(2018). Mandala. First Edition. UK: Arrow Academy.
CINEMA NIPPON. (2019). 26th September. Stepping into "This Transient Life". Cinema Nippon – Youtube. [Online Video]. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T393pgg-yDQ. [Accessed: 19th May 2021].
CINEMA NIPPON. (2019). 28th October. Unraveling "Mandala". Cinema Nippon – Youtube. [Online Video]. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=znvjFV1jGJ0&ab_channel=CinemaNipponCinemaNippon. [Accessed: 20th May 2021].
CINEMA NIPPON. (2019). 15th December. Reading into "Poem". Cinema Nippon – Youtube. [Online Video]. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CdsMmPVREFc&ab_channel=CinemaNipponCinemaNippon. [Accessed: 20th May 2021].
DE CORINTH, H.(2020). But What Is Ecstasy: Akio Jissôji’s The Buddhist Trilogy. Mubi.com [Online]. 14th February. Available from: https://mubi.com/notebook/posts/but-what-is-ecstasy-akio-jissoji-s-the-buddhist-trilogy. [Accessed: 19th May 2021].
MES, T. (2018) This Transient Life. First Edition. UK: Arrow Academy.
MES, T. (2018). Akio Jissôji, Sacred and Profane. First Edition. UK: Arrow Academy.