Prolific director Akio Jissoji died in 2006 at the age of sixty-nine. He was working quite literally right up until the moment he died, having just completed the first episode of the re-boot of Shiruba kamen (Silver Mask) which was released one month after his death. “Shibura” is the Japanese pronunciation of “silver” and “kamen” means mask—an indication for any fan that the show relies on “tokusatsu” – special effects. In fact, Jissoji had directed two episodes of the original Silver Mask during the 1971-1972 TV season. He was by then a well-known and respected director of tokusatsu. He directed six episodes of the pioneering special-effects, masked-hero series, Ultraman, from 1966-67, and four for the even more popular sequel series, Ultra Seven (1967-68). No surprise, then, that he would create and direct a series like Silver Mask. What is surprising, however, that during his tokusatsu shows he directed a fiercely avant-garde, thematically challenging and often pictorially elegant set of films collectively known as “The Buddhist Trilogy.” Consisting of Mujo (This Transient Life, 1970), Mandara (1971) and Uta (Poem, 1972), the films are comparable in many ways to the equally challenging and elegant work of Yoshishige Yoshida, whose “Love and Anarchy” trilogy was made at exactly the same time. There are also touches of Nagisa Oshima’s lower-budget experimental works of this same period (e.g., Diary of a Shinjuku Thief, 1969; The Man Who Left His Will on Film, 1970; Ceremony,1971).
Whether or not Jissoji belongs to the ever-more exciting Japanese New Wave is an interesting question. But concentrating on that might take away from the uniqueness of Jissoji’s films. Unlike the New Wave filmmakers who paid their dues in the mainstream film industry as assistant directors, Jissoji came at his film work through the unlikely route of children’s masked-hero entertainment (a huge genre in Japan then as now). There is no reason not to think of Jissoji as a late-arriving member of the New Wave, contributing to the astonishing second wave of the late 1960s-early 1970s and thus deserving of far more attention than he has up until now received. But there is also every reason to see him as a unique filmmaker, oddly enough closer to Yasujiro Ozu than any other filmmaker in his insistence on examining a clear set of themes in a challenging and singular style.
While This Transient Life won the prestigious Pardo d’oro (Golden Leopard), the top prize at the Locarno International Film Festival, the subsequent films of the trilogy had only minimal release in Japan and no overseas distribution. In that respect, he, like Ozu, was deemed too specialized, perhaps too Japanese in a way, to be fully appreciated outside his home country. As was the case with Ozu, Jissoji will soon earn a well-deserved reputation as an important filmmaker. However, let us not take these comparisons to Ozu too far. Anyone expecting the warm, gentle, subtle and almost plotless films of the master will be in for quite a surprise!
Akio Jissoji was born in Tokyo in March of 1937. Even as a child he was a huge fan of French cinema of the 1930s and after. His interest in French cinema translated into an interest in French literature, which became his major as a student at prestigious Waseda University, graduating in 1959. He began to work in television at TBS, the Tokyo Broadcasting System. In 1965 he made his fateful move to the film division where he began working with Eiji Tsuburaya, the leading innovator of special effects. Supposedly, TBS thought his film style was too avant-garde for mainstream television (indeed!), so he went over to Tsuburaya Productions. In February of 1969, Jissoji directed a short film scripted by Oshima, whom he had come to know. This film, Yoiyama semareba (When Twilight Draws Near) was featured as part of a double-bill along with Oshima’s own experimental feature Diary of a Shinjuku Thief in the Art Theatre Guild’s flagship theater located, appropriately enough, in Shinjuku. The success of the short led the ATG to enter into an agreement to co-produce his features, using the model they had developed with other filmmakers such as Oshima, Yoshida and Shuji Terayama, putting up half of the modest production budget and getting rights to distribute and exhibit the films. According to the relevant scholarship, along with Kazuo Kuroki and Terayama, Jissoji was ATG’s most important director of the 1970s.
The title of Jissoji’s first feature, This Transient Life, refers directly to one of the central tenets of Buddhism: impermanence. However, Jissoji’s main characters, despite their proximity to a Buddhist temple, do not spend their time in meditation on the fleetingness of life. Instead, the film deals directly with incest in a most daring and scandalous way. This may be one reason that the film became quite a success. Yet, having invoked Ozu earlier, I can’t help but be reminded of his works throughout this film. The motif of the daughter’s marriage, for one; another the use of two preliminary shots around the train tracks and then a shot of the train platform. Look at Late Spring or Ohayo. Trains are among the most important of Ozu motifs, such as Tokyo Story; and shots on platforms are frequent, as are shots on trains. And, indeed, we next get a scene taken on the train. More than that, Ozu’s preferred theme is said to be the dissolution of the traditional Japanese family. Not just in This Transient Life, but also in Poem, this theme is taken to an extreme; on the one hand, a traditional family destroyed by incest; in the latter film, a family destroyed by greed. Replete with fragmented angles, unassigned camera movement and temporal leaps, the film combines an avant-garde style with “pink film” (soft-core pornography) motifs and nudity and a sense of rebellion—from Buddhism as well as the greater society. If there is such a thing as an undiscovered masterpiece, this is it.
For his second film, Jissoji chose the title “Mandara”, the Japanese pronunciation of mandala, a geometric shape, often including intricate designs, intended to represent different aspects of the universe and used as instruments of meditation and symbols of prayer. Jissoji wastes no time in linking his Buddhist interest with sex as the film certainly grabs our attention in its opening shot of a couple having sex interspersed during the credits with Buddhist images, including a shot featuring a scroll of a colorful mandala behind a seated Buddha.(The use of color film here distinguishes this film from his earlier effort in the trilogy.) Problematically, the film features several scenes of rape. In one respect, for some directors of the Japanese New Wave (Oshima Imamura), rape was sometimes used as symbolic of sexual liberation, the freeing of the libido from societal repression. The political dimension of sexual freedom and the sexual dimension of political freedom are inextricably bound up with the New Wave and Jissoji picks up on this motif. Mandara is also associated with the ungura underground) movement of the time, with its deliberate use of such strategies as invoking Japanese folklore and myths surrounding the Shaman queen Himiko, Shintoistic fertility rites, as well a rejection of urban life in a retreat to some purer version of Japan itself. Aspects of the ungura theater are clearly to be found here in terms of both performance and theme. Still, rape is rape and misogyny inexcusable and we must come to terms with its use here.
In many ways, Poem, the final film of the trilogy, is the most tied into Buddhism. The beautiful landscape, the traditional home and the protagonist who leads an ascetic life and devotes himself to writing inscriptions on tombstones, mini-sutras to express his zeal. Steadfastly patrolling the house at night by flashlight, one wonders what he is searching for. But what he finds is not what he seeks, at least not consciously, and the ensuing struggle between tradition and modernity, morality and immorality, Buddhism and capitalism, will all amass on the wrong side of that equation.
The pictorial beauty of Yoshida; the subtle themes of Ozu; the disjunctive editing of Oshima—yet somehow adding up to the unique and uniquely important cinema of Akio Jissoji.
© 2019 by David Desser. All rights reserved.