Friday, April 25, 2008

REVIEW: The Book of the Dead - Kihachiro Kawamoto (2005)

Reviewed by Chris MaGee

I remember being in Kyoto a couple years ago on a rainy afternoon. My wife and I had arrived at our ryokan in Gion early so we explored to narrow wooden streets to kill time, and in Kyoto you can turn down any little side street, turn any corner and you always end up somewhere remarkable. That day we ended up in the Kennin-ji Zen Buddhist Temple . Unlike so many of the shrines and temples ringed with souvenir shops selling cheap paper fans and plastic Ultraman masks Kennin-ji was something entirely different. No souvenirs, no loudspeakers blasting fun facts for tourists; we were greeted by a large tatami room, a pump thermos of green tea, and quiet. After hopping on and off trains and buses for days on end, our nerves buzzing with new sights and sounds those quiet moments sitting in a temple over eight centuries old listening to the rain is one of the fondest memories of Japan I have. So why mention that now, at the start of a review for Kihachiro Kawamoto’s 2005 film “The Book of the Dead”? Because watching this brief but lovely film gave me that very same feeling.

Based on the novel by Shinobu Orikuchi it tells the story of Lady Iratsume a beautiful and highly coveted young maiden living in 8th century Nara , the then capital of Japan . Protected by high stone walls from her many suitors she spends her time copying the Buddhist scriptures. She fixates on one in particular, the Amida Sutra, and sets herself the goal of writing out 1000 copies of it. Day in and day out she sits at her desk focusing solely on the words of the Buddha, only pausing to occasionally look up at Mount Futakami rising up in the distance outside her window. One night at dusk she sees a vision in the glow of the setting sun, one that she feels is the Buddha himself and this sheltered girl of the royal Fujiwara clan sets off alone to find its source.

All of this is done through stop-motion animated puppets, but don’t let that make you think you’ll be sitting down for a filmed bunraku play, or on the other end of the spectrum an old re-run of “The Thunderbirds” (shiver…) Kawamoto has been directing animated puppet films since the late 60’s after having studied with animator Jiri Trnka in Prague. The Czech puppet master encouraged his pupil to draw inspiration from the stories, folktales, and theatrical traditions of Kawamoto’s home country, and while “The Book of the Dead” owes a huge debt to noh, kabuki, and of course bunraku, but it ends up as something totally unique and timeless; a story of faith and love spanning the worlds of the living and the dead.

While at first the puppetry is a bit distracting soon I found myself caught up in Iratsume’s journey and discovery that Amida Buddha may not have been summoning her to Futakami, but instead the restless ghost of an executed prince who loved her grandfather’s aunt years and years ago. There’s no hot love story between a ghost and maiden here though, but a story that as Kawamoto describes it is designed to relieve the souls of people who have been killed. I can certainly vouch that, like that afternoon at Kennin-ji, the experience of seeing “The Book of the Dead” really felt like a salve on my nerves after the daily grind of my day job and the number of films I watch and review for this group. It may sound like a platitude, but it harkens back to a type of film that isn’t made anymore… well, until now.

You won’t have to have had an extensive background in Japanese history to appreciate this wonderful film. Its pleasures are far more universal than that. From it’s compassionate story based in Buddhist doctrine to the amazing use of colour and light “The Book of the Dead” is destined to become a modern classic.

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