by Allan Fish
(Japan 1971 135m) not on DVD
Make harmony with benevolence
p Toyoaki Awa d Akio Jissoji w Toshiro Ishido ph Yozo Inagaki ed Keichi Yraoka m Toru Kuyuki art Noriyoshi Ikeya
Shin Kishida, Koji Shimizu, Hiroko Sakurai, Ryo Tamura,
In a room furnished entirely in dazzling white, with the only trappings being white bed sheets, a couple make love enthusiastically, writhing around in seeming orgiastic bliss, but any sounds are drowned out, literally, by that of waves crashing against the shore. In some ways, despite another twelve reels that follow, the essence of the second part of Akio Jissoji’s Buddhist trilogy (following This Transient Life and preceding Poem) can be distilled, in its essence, to that final scene. Nature and the natural opposed to unnatural.
Mandara follows two Kyoto students, as they follow what could, depending on your mood, be summed up, in the words of one of the protagonists, as either a utopia or a secret society. Or a religious cult devoted to agriculture and the search for eroticism. Both notions tie in with the idea of returning to the primordial state, of a time when love wasn’t known, only sex, so that rape was an acceptable act which women were to expect. And as such there is a lot of rape in Mandara, enough to make one think we were watching a Wakamatsu, Kumashiro or Konuma film from the same era. There’s nothing erotic about what we see here, though. It’s all bestial, savage, one might even say nihilist. That’s the paradox of it, a community where sex has been reduced to such an extent that the pleasure can only be found in imagining the woman to be dead, or in a comatose state. It’s sickening in many ways, yet it dares you to be repulsed, dares you to turn away and uses visual stimulants and iconography to stir the melting pot of ideas. Waves, the shore, a waterfall, simple farming, the digging of irrigation ditches, devotion towards a tapestry and a statue, and to the discipline and charisma – that word is used often – of its leader.
One could call it disproportionate, one could go further and call it disorienting, perspective is frequently atomised, with fish-eye lens shots, and sets that mirror that sense of disorientation. Immediately following the opening sequence, the couple are seen in a room which forms part of a commune. The building itself blends German Expressionism, Bauhaus and an Etruscan tomb, UFA circa 1920 meets Cerveteri. Not surprising then that one senses a certain Nietzschean philosophy beneath the surface; when one character observes “this is meaningless” it may mirror many people’s reaction to the film, but couldn’t be further from the truth. Take the music, which largely consists of organ music straight out of a Gothic cathedral. Not very Buddhist, one might think, and yet what is a cathedral but a place of worship, a place to congregate and attempt to look towards the infinite. And Jissoji and Ishido might be seen to be taking it one step further, seeing the body itself a vessel, and just as a cathedral can be violated by heathens, so the body can be violated, gate-crashed by intruders. And so the various women here are violated, conscious or unconscious, repeatedly and viciously.
Jissoji’s film, as if it needed stating, is not for everyone; though ravishingly shot by Yozo Inagaki and designed by Noriyoshi Ikeya the surface detail may alienate and banish any aesthetic appreciation. It’s a deeply unsettling film, akin to taking a two hour walk on hot coals to demonstrate your ability to apply mind over matter. Can one become desensitised to the horror, a horror verging on the apocalyptic; a world where “mankind is an aggregate of individuals” and where the idea of reproduction is one to abhor. It’s dazzling, existential cinema which, if one is brutally honest, goes off on one or two too many tangents and remains impossible to completely decipher, but which remains one of the cinema’s great paradoxes, depicting a dystopian utopia, a paradise in the realms of hell. Here boats can sail off as if to Avalon and be shipwrecked on a far shore. “What country friends is this?” Illyria, Elysium…or Dante’s Inferno.