Saturday, July 9, 2011

REVIEW: This Transient Life

無常 (Mujo)

Released: 1970

Akio Jissoji

Ryo Tamura
Michiko Tsukasa
Kozo Yamamura
Kei Kato
Eiji Okuda

Running time: 146 min.

Reviewed by Chris MaGee

Incest, nudity and polemic arguments on Buddhism aren't really things that you would relate to "Ultraman", now would you? Men wearing rubber monster suits smashing miniature sets, yes, but these heavy, taboo subjects, no; but in the mind of Akio Jissoji the two lived side by side. Between 1966 to 1969 Jissoji directed episodes of "Ultra Q", "Ultraman", "Ultra 7" and "Operation Mystery!" for Tsuburaya Productions and the Tokyo Broadcasting System. It might have been a strange gig for a guy who graduated with a degree in French Literature from Waseda University, but it paid the rent and gave Jissoji a place to hone his film-making skills. After four years of creating these monumental battles Jissoji felt he had to do something different, and he did. Going independent he allied himself with the famed Art Theater Guild and proceeded to do a 180 degree artistic turn. Instead of monster fights Jissoji began making a trilogy of films around Busshist philosophical concepts. The very first of these films was titled "Mujo", or "This Transient Life".

Masao is a young man out of step with the world around him. While so many other men his age are becoming salarymen and settling down Masao spends his time studying Buddhist iconography. His sister Yuri is a young woman who is also finding it hard to do what is expected of her. While Yuri's parents are continually trying to arrange appropriate suitors for their daughter she, under the influence of Masao, rejects each and every one of them. The rejection of the status quo goes much deeper in “This Transient Life” though. You see, Masao and Yuri have a secret. Already remarkably close siblings their love for each other progresses into forbidden territory during an afternoon of horse play wearing Noh masks. The feelings that this brother and sister harbour for each other are unleashed behind the anonymity of these masks and they begin to passionately make love. This is the beginning of a love affair that will result in Masao getting Yuri pregnant and Masao turning the lives of those around him into “a living hell”, as one character puts it.

With a baby on the way Masao is now forced to hide his incestuous relationship with Yuri. He knows that two men already are in love with his beautiful sister -- Iwashita, a man who does odd jobs around their parents house, and Ogino, a young Buddhist priest. Yuri eventually marries Iwashita while Masao goes to study carving Buddhist icons under Mori, a famed sculptor in Kyoto (Masao also has an affair with Mori’s wife). A series of events have been set in motion by Masao and Yuri’s relationship though, and even their separation can’t stop it from its terrible climax. A visit by Masao to see his “nephew” sees his passions for his sister reignited and very soon madness and murder follows.

Watching "This Transient Life" over 40 years after its initial release is both an enlightening and sometimes off-putting experience. It’s not the taboo relationship of Masao and Yuri that makes it so. Instead its the headlong dive into incest and sensational sex combined with religious imagery that gives the film less of a feeling of being revolutionary as it does of being a naughty and often pretentious art house pleasure, the kind of film that black clad students would discuss as they sipped strong coffe and smoked Gauloises cigarettes. It isn’t until the last third of the film, when Masao begins to debate Buddhist ideas of nothingness, happiness, heaven and hell with Ogino that “This Transient Life” becomes more than loving shots of bare breasts set to classical music. If, as Buddhism preaches, there is nothing, that this void is the ultimate ideal then nothing -- heaven/ hell, right/ wrong -- truly exists. Masao’s actions reveal a nihilistic paradox in Buddhism, one that Masao says is given form by the ambiguous smile of on the statuary Buddhas and Bodhisattvas he and Mori create.

Besides its merits of its heavy-handed religious/ sexual messages there is one thing about “This Transient Life” that cannot be debated -- the beauty of its construction. For a film that is only marginally known in North America it is remarkable to see how influential it has been on on the work of a group of very well known film-makers. Jissoji's constant camera movement and dramatically composed black-and-white shots can been seen the the work of such diverse directors as Shinya Tsukamoto, Go Shibata and even in "Love & Pop", the frenetic live-action directorial debut of animator Hideaki Anno. With this kind of influence, as well as his colourful background with Tsuburaya Productions, it's a bit of a mystery as to why the films of Jissoji aren't more appreciated outside of Japan. Maybe it’s the aforementioned psycho-sexual-religious politics; but with film historians writing and speaking ad nauseum about the one-shot/ one-scene of Mizoguchi, the low angle tatami viewpoint of Ozu, the flattened depth of focus of Kurosawa and static camera set-ups of Kitano you would think that entire books would have been written about Jissoji's unique and inspired visual style.

Not always easy to take for its “beyond good and evil” portrait of the forbidden passions between a brother and sister “This Transient Life” is, though, a fascinating example of a film-maker going from unlikely roots to becoming an artist of astounding visual talents.


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