Some people believe in heaven and the afterlife while others are convinced that human life is temporal and when it ends nothing remains but a corpse. A dramatization of those opposing views in a film would be a challenging task for any director but Japanese director Akio Jissoji confronts a number of philosophical and religious matters by exploring Buddhist thought and practices versus human desire in Mujo (English title: This Transient Life, 1970). The result is a fascinating and visually innovative character study that manages to balance the sacred and the profane in one of the most overlooked Japanese films of the 70s which is finally starting to receive its due thanks to resurfacing on Blu-ray in recent years.
This Transient Life marked the feature film debut of Jissoji, who was already well known in Japan and by science fiction fans around the world for directing episodes of TV series like Ultraman (1966-67), Ultraseven (1967-68) and Operation: Mystery! (1968-69), which could have served as the template for Chris Carter’s The X-Files (1993-2018). Yet, Jissoji’s directorial debut couldn’t have been more unexpected based on his previous work and revealed an interest in human sexuality and eroticism that would flower in later work such as Yaneura no sanposha (English title: Watcher in the Attic, 1993), one of the more “artistic” examples in the erotic pinku genre.
Winner of the Golden Leopard award at the Locarno International Film Festival in 1970, This Transient Life also became the first film in a Jissoji triple play that is now referred to as “The Buddhist Trilogy.” It is also significant that the production company behind the trilogy was ATG (Art Theater Guild), a former distribution company that brought international cinema to Japan and eventually began making their own independent art film alternatives to the popular cinema of the day. Often radical in nature, many of the films produced by ATG are now considered part of the Japanese New Wave of the late sixties and include Shohei Imamura’s A Man Vanishes (1967), Nagisha Oshima’s Death by Hanging (1968), Toshio Matsumoto’s Funeral Parade of Roses (1969). This Transient Life fit right in with the contemporary themes being explored in ATG’s releases, many of which put the spotlight on the emerging youth culture as well as political, social and sexual issues.
Jissoji’s film introduces us to an affluent family where the parents are traditional and entrenched in honoring a patriarchal culture while their two children, Masao (Ruo Tamura) and Yuri (Michiko Tsukasa), are typical of a younger generation who question and reject current mores and practices in Japanese society. Masao, in fact, is a self-serving non-conformist who lives by the simple principal of “If we just do whatever pleases us, then everything will turn out fine”. His sister is equally conflicted about her role in society and, at 25, is still unmarried even though there are two men who are in love with her. One is Iwashita (Kotobuki Hananomoto), the household servant, and the other is Ogino (Haruhiko Okamura), a Buddhist priest who is also a friend to Yuri’s brother.
Yuri’s fate is soon decided by Masao during a rainy afternoon as they discover a pair of Noh masks in their parents’ belongings. In their disguises, they chase each other around the house but their playing acting arouses them both and they end up having passionate sex. Yuri becomes uneasy after their incestuous encounter but admits, “I didn’t know anything like this was possible.” And Masao reassures her with the comment, “There’s nothing to be scared of. It’s natural for two people to be like this.”
Thus begins a taboo relationship between brother and sister that is only interrupted with Yuri becomes pregnant. In order to keep their parents from learning the truth, Masao convinces Iwashita to marry his sister and then decides to leave home to avoid further temptation. His interest in Buddhist sculpture leads him into an apprenticeship with Mori (Eiji Okada), a renowned sculptor who is working on a commissioned statue for Ogino’s temple. Masao moves in with Mori and his young wife Reiko (Mitsuko Tanaka), but the arrangement quickly becomes a menage a trois.
Meanwhile Yuri has given birth to a son and appears to be happy in her marriage to Iwashita but life takes a tragic turn when Masao returns for a visit and resumes his torrid relationship with his sister. The remainder of This Transient Life depicts how Masao’s transgressive behavior and nihilist beliefs disrupt the lives of everyone around him while he finds his own way to enlightenment through primal urges and desires.
This Transient Life was a popular success in Japan at the time but it was also highly controversial for confronting a number of taboos including incest. The sex scenes are not hardcore but are explicit enough with orgiastic writhing, bare breasts being groped and discreet shots of oral sex being performed on Yuri. What keeps these scenes from descending into pure softcore exploitation is director Jissoji’s artistic approach which employs fragmented imagery, extreme close-ups, handheld traveling shots and the use of classical music, mostly Bach or discordant notes from a string instrument. Some reviewers have found the film’s stylistic devices pretentious but they also effectively express the liberating and hedonist mindset of the incestuous couple.
Just as important are the scenes in which Masao argues about the tenets of Buddhism with Ogino, who believes one can find nirvana through religion. He thinks Masao is a destructive force, telling him, “You are creating hell wherever you go.” But Masao is completely dismissive, saying “I think I’ve made this world more colorful.” There is no denying Masao’s behavior as subversive and amoral – it leads to suicide for Iwashita, death from sexual exhaustion for Mori and accidental murder in the case of Takahiro (Isao Sasaki), Mori’s son, who blames Masao for this father’s death.
Still, you could take the opposite view (and this is one of the attributes of Jissoji’s direction) that Masao is the kind of anti-hero who becomes a liberating force. Mori had been living like a voyeur, watching Masao and his wife make love, until they invited him to join them in bed. After that, he was reinvigorated with new purpose and inspired to finish the sculpture he had been working on for two years. Likewise, Masao’s affair with his sister brought her the only happiness she had known and is also responsible for bringing her together with Ogino at the film’s close where it seems likely he will become Yuri’s new husband and father to her son.
When we last see Masao he has entered a dream state in which he encounters his dead grandmother at the beach. He helps her dig up a giant carp in the sand that is big enough to feed a village but when he cuts open the fish’s belly, a cascade of stone tablets spill out, each one covered in Japanese writing and representing people from Masao’s life. What does it all mean?
Whatever you make of the film, the black and white cinematography (which required the services of three cameramen, Yuzo Onagaki, Masao Nakabori and Kazumi Oneda), is consistently stunning and always in motion, whether it is exploring the façade of a Buddhist statue or observing the faces of characters spying on each other (voyeurism is a key theme throughout the movie). Occasionally Jissoji will use a Buddhist saying as a transition device between scenes, rendered as on-screen text, such as “transient and changing…time waits for no man.” In fact, the film’s Japanese title Mujo is a Buddhist term that means life is fleeting and ethereal.
Rarely seen outside Japan since its theatrical release, This Transient Life was released on Blu-ray by Arrow Academy in August 2019 as part of their 3-disc limited edition, Akio Jissoji: The Buddhist Trilogy, which also includes the films Mandara (Jissoji’s first color feature) and Poem. The set includes a host of special features including a bonus movie, Jissoji’s Asaki Yumemishi (English title: It Was a Faint Dream, 1974), a period drama about an orphaned woman who becomes a figure of desire for many men but renounces it all for a life as a nun.
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