Akio Jissoji's Buddhist Trilogy

Anti-Society and Spirituality in 1960s Japan: Akio Jissoji’s Buddhist Trilogy – Your Japanese Film Insight #23

Hello there, and welcome to another issue of Your Japanese Film Insight. As I’ve made clear in discussions on films like Funeral Parade of Roses, the Female Prisoner Scorpion series and more, the 1960s were a turbulent time in Japanese cinema. It was at this time when the rise of domestic ownership of televisions alongside the overproduction of films brought the major studios to the brink of bankruptcy, and it caused a seismic shift in the industry as the studio system came to an end. It was also a time in Japanese cinema where the place in the market for independent movie productions grew substantially.

The Art Theatre Guild was a major force in Japanese independent films, with the production group responsible for the funding and production of many Japanese New Wave films throughout the 1960s and 1970s. These rejected traditional Japanese filmmaking conventions for something reminiscent of the French New Wave, albeit with a thematic weight that typically rejected the Japanese societal status quo while tackling taboo subjects like sex, incest, and discrimination, among other things.

Known as much for his work on Ultraman as he is for his Japanese New Wave works, Akio Jissoji is one of these prominent New Wave creators challenging Japanese society with his films. His Buddhist Trilogy, made up of This Transient Night, Mandala, and Poem, explores spirituality in post-war Japan by examining the conflict between religion and modern materialist society, while exploring sexual liberty and anti-state ideology through themes like incest and sex. It is a difficult yet utterly engrossing trilogy that brings in techniques from arthouse and pink films. Let’s explore this masterful series of films from the Japanese New Wave and Akio Jissoji.

Exploring the Turbulent Politics of 1960s Japan and the Japanese New Wave

Each film, as part of Akio Jissoji’s Buddhist Trilogy, explores Japanese society’s relationship with the spiritual and physical and the relationships between people and systems within the modern world, both in terms of the stories of the films themselves and the cinematography and filmmaking techniques used to maximum effect.

This Transient Life explores Buddhism and spirituality in modern Japanese society most directly. The film follows Masao, a man who lives near and begins to apprentice at a remote Buddhist monastery making Buddha statues, during which he begins to challenge whether his religious beliefs are still valid to a good life as he engages in a sexual incestuous relationship with his sister.

Mandala focuses further on the role of sex in relation to modernity and personhood as a young couple becomes members of a sex cult built around agriculture and sexual pleasure. Promising personal freedom and liberty from responsibility in a new society that rejects the rules of modern life for a return to a more ‘pure’ representation of Japan free from modern influence, Shinichi begins to question whether life in this cult actually delivers the freedom they expected.

In Poem, the story most prominently tackles the clash between materialism and tradition through a spiritual lens. We follow a story that starts with a house servant objecting to plans to change and sell a classic family property to modernize it that evolves into something far more.

Mandala (1971)
Mandala (1971)

It’s impossible to discuss this trilogy without considering its place within Japanese society and left-wing politics at the time of the movie’s release, and without an understanding of the Japanese New Wave. I’ve mentioned that films in the Japanese New Wave often represented a rejection of Japanese society in its current form and challenged it within a search for a new direction through an exploration of taboo subjects. It should be noted that this wave of films is inextricably linked to the Japanese student protests of the 1960s that stood against American military presence while representing anti-capitalist struggle that differed from the Stalinist school of thought.

The Japanese New Wave took the deconstruction of cinema that defined the French New Wave as it explored new filmmaking styles, and used them as a skewering point to explore Japanese society’s postwar transformation into an American-supported capitalist country. With these techniques and storytelling decisions being used by Japanese New Wave filmmakers to emphasize their rejection of the current system and a desire for a new one, these experimental films would often explore Japanese history concerning the present as a way of critiquing modern Japan and the direction the country was heading, while exploring and critiquing inter-factional politics on the Japanese left.

Many of the major films of the Japanese New Wave were produced independently with the support of the Art Theater Guild, including Akio Jissoji’s Buddhist Trilogy. Considering the circumstances the films were released under, they must be examined as not just an exploration of modern spirituality’s contradictions to modern society, but as a political rejection of capitalist Japan.

This Transient Life (1970)
This Transient Life (1970)

Let’s consider this idea through the first film of the trilogy, This Transient Life, for a better understanding of what form this anti-society viewpoint the Buddhist Trilogy takes when it comes to its approach to spirituality. The view of Buddhism explored within this film is its sense of morality, referring to the religion’s implication that people should hold adherence to moral rules that are suggested for a better and more fulfilling way of living.

The argument Masao makes is that the attempt to limit humanity to a single ethical or social set of rules for the purpose of an afterlife in nirvana, conceived as a realm of nothingness, makes the idea of following a moral code based on upholding a status quo unappealing. The abstract nature of heaven under Buddhist scripture where nothing exists, including the existence of good and consciousness, makes Masao believe that he needs to break these rules to avert a negative result.

This rejection of nirvana is what enlightens Masao to engage in acts that directly challenge social taboo and why he fulfills his urges for a sexual relationship with his sister, Yuri. Under the film’s religious framing, this rejection of the purpose of life results in the embrace of death and a form of hell that connects him to the afterlife, as seen by how Masao sees images of Yuri’s corpse during sex and how his actions result in direct harm for those around him. Yet it’s also a rejection that finds a place of fulfillment and happiness for Masao himself.

This Transient Life (1970)
This Transient Life (1970)

The movie isn’t a condoning of Masao or the rejection of a stable life for the charting of his path outside of social norms, and Masao’s sexual affair with his sister is not to be seen as something the movie champions. What this relationship represents is a disregard of society’s web of restrictions to chart his path, something the movie is much warmer towards accepting and promoting. It’s representative of the shackles of the old morality systems and society that bred pain for the 1970 audience of the film, and in favoring this rejection of the system, characters such as the priest are the ones shown to be lacking in mental stability, composure, and clear sight. Not Masao.

All of this is told through some stunning cinematography that enhances these points. Part of why this messaging is so effective is that the audience is forced to become active participants through a camera that always makes its presence known as an active observer of the action on the screen. Often, it can feel like you’re peering in from a distance as cameras sit low to the floor at an angle that keeps the characters from being in focus. Other times we’re brought right into their faces. The camera dances through the film with a methodical tempo that lurks and stares.

And yet every time it feels purposeful. Decisions to linger on Buddhist imagery or to frame these scenes feel like meaningful attempts to advance this message. The decision to shoot the film entirely in black and white when color was now the norm in Japanese cinema is another purposeful decision that adds texture to the film.

Poem (1972)
Poem (1972)

Or how about Poem, the final film in Akio Jissoji’s trilogy? While this is the weakest of the three films, this film is ultimately a spiritual story of a young man who turns his back on the modern world, protecting a family legacy that ultimately sends him to his doom.

Poem is a distinct aesthetic departure from the prior two films in the trilogy, yet no less relevant to the topics and themes explored within it. This film seeks mostly to explore the role of spirituality in a modern Japan, where the link between the spiritual and the ever-advancing materialist world is growing. The link to Buddhism couldn’t be stronger in this film, with Jun seeking to defend the family home from the loss of its spirituality and the life within it, yet it does through with a style of filmmaking different from the other two films.

Ultimately, these films as part of the Buddhist Trilogy are a way for Akio Jissoji to craft a more widely appealing anti-capitalist ideology that the audience can later embrace. It’s through Mandala, however, that cinematography, storytelling, and aesthetics come together to best explore the central ideas of the Buddhist Trilogy.

Content/Trigger Warning
The following part deals with sexual violence/rape and may cause emotional distress

Film Flashback: Mandala (曼陀羅, Akio Jissoji, 1971)

Mandala (1971)

The decision to leave Mandala, the second film in Akio Jissoji’s Buddhist Trilogy, last is not just because this is the strongest of the three films. Mandala best embodies the spiritual anti-society views of the Buddhist trilogy by exploring them through the lens of sexual pleasure, both consensual and non-consensual.

Opening on shots of a couple having sex in a room made all of white, one thing becomes abundantly clear about not just Mandala, but the entire Buddhist Trilogy: for Akio Jissoji, sex and sexuality are weapons against the repression of modern society. Each film in the trilogy features heavy amounts of sex, with its inclusion throughout the story here being how the cult recruits new members through rape. This is just one way how Jissoji uses eros and the filmmaking stylings of pink cinema to explore themes of spirituality and personhood in postwar Japanese society.

The liberty of sex and sexual violence within the Japanese New Wave can be viewed in a few different ways. Whether you view thematic strength from the Japanese New Wave’s use of erotic filmmaking styles to discuss power imbalances and the left-wing political and class struggle or not, you have to question this decision when it becomes such a central part of a film’s story as it does in Mandala. By representing the act of rape within Mandala with such frequency, even as a symbolic rather than pleasuring filmmaking tool, it contradicts the idea that Jissoji is supposedly critiquing by weaponizing the female body to make a point rather than centering it from a human perspective.

Mandala (1971)

They feature in the film as sexual objects first and foremost, with rape a denial of their autonomy and existence within the movie and, because of the film’s nature, the left-wing socialist movement more broadly. The repeated portrayal of brutal rape adds to what is an already challenging experience, even if I feel it does, ultimately, succeed at enhancing the movie’s message.

Where the theming of Akio Jissoji’s Buddhist Trilogy comes through most strongly in Mandala is through directly introducing the political struggles of the Japanese left at the time, rather than abstractly represent it. The cult can be viewed as an entity rejecting the modern Japanese capitalist society by its retreat into nature and personal pleasure through sex that breaks against social norms. Their return to nature against the progress of Japanese society is in itself a reconciliation of the lost spirituality that capitalism expedites.

Mandala (1971)

Yet the cult also eschews responsibility for the wider society and the belief that things will change through class struggle that the once-militant Shinichi chooses to reject to follow the cult. ‘I no longer believe in the future at all. I no longer believe that a classless anti-state will come to pass,’ so he admits.

Which brings us to the film’s ultimate thesis, ultimately an exploration of the rigor and determination needed for a long-term class revolution to create equality and social change, coupled with the exhaustive reality that makes this a challenge. The cult, in this instance, is a representation of an idealized world that has seen enlightenment yet can’t ensure this utopia comes to pass thanks to their rejection of the future and outside world for personal satisfaction.

It’s difficult to remove this film from the time it was released, when the power of the Japanese new left was waning as left-wing groups resorted to infighting and the movement lost ground to opposing establishment goals due to things like the ratification of the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan. The film is arguing against the cult’s viewpoint of giving up the struggle to find a personal utopia while acknowledging the brutalist intent of society to wear down the revolutionaries seeking a better world.

Mandala (1971)

All of this is told in a conscious mix of color and black and white, where the cult is shot in black and white to represent how the group has given up on future itself, while the rest of the world continues moving forwards.

Where does this leave the Buddhist Trilogy? Each of these films, often through their central focus on acts that reject Buddhist teachings like rape and incest, explores the theory and philosophical ideas of Buddhism with relation to class struggle and the growing materialism of Japan. These films were released at a time of introspection for the movement, after repeated pushbacks and suppression, and can be viewed in this context to see them as Akio Jissoji’s way to establish a future for the movement so they can continue to struggle for change even as they lost power and relevancy.

There are many ways to view Mandala and the trilogy as a whole, and regardless of your familiarity with the 1960s and 1970s in Japan, these films offer a difficult yet ultimately engaging viewing experience for those who wish to give them a chance. The Japanese New Wave is home to some of the most challenging yet intellectually engaging films from throughout Japanese cinema history, with this trilogy being an unmissable part of that movement.

Akio Jissoji’s Buddhist Trilogy, featuring Mandala, is available via Arrow FIlms.

That brings us to the end of the latest ‘Your Japanese Film Insight’. For a complete list of films recommended as part of this column, you can find them compiled together in a list, with links to their respective articles, over on Letterboxd.

Are there any films you want to see discussed in the future? Contact me directly on Twitter @socialanigirl !

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