Much of Mandara – the final entry of a Buddhist trilogy by Jissoji that also includes the equally daring and powerful films Mujo (“This Transient Life,” 1970) and Uta (“Poem,” 1972) – is shot in obtuse or strange angles, not quite as severe or obvious a technique as a fish-eye perspective, but simulating it enough to create a similar disorienting effect. Fittingly so: for the film is fundamentally about the cultural disorientation so critical to the aesthetic of Japanese New Wave – what can occur, and go wrong, when young people attempt to channel visceral energies and emotions – lust, despair, longing – into some kind of coherent spiritual or political mission, personal or collective. In this case, as particularly concerns an overlapping of religious meaning and eroticism.
It tells the story of two college-age couples undergoing existential, sexual, and political ennui, who spend time numbly swapping out partners, being drawn into a mysterious Buddhist cult led by a charismatic leader. The leader explains how the two primary forces driving the group’s ritual practice are “agrarianism” and “eroticism,” because these are the only principles that further life, both in terms of humanity’s role in the earth’s regenerative processes and its own propagation. At the same time, he invokes the Buddhist principle of “non-attachment,” and a concurrent leftist communal agenda as guides for the activities: the commune’s farming are decidedly non-capitalistic, ostensibly uninterested in acquisition, and promote shared duty, while their conceptualization of eroticism is that it is to be enjoyed and used as sensation, free-floating, formless, and adhering to no specific static relationship or persona – what is sometimes known as “polymorphous perversity.”
It is the erotic/spiritual element that both the group leader – and Jissoji as a visual storyteller – is most interested in here. The implication is that if this kind of untethered eroticism is experienced by a devotee (or possibly an audience) in the appropriate spiritual context, then the principle of impermanence, so central to the deconstruction of the Self in Buddhist practice, can be experienced viscerally and genuinely.
Essentially, Jissoji here takes his cue from Tantrism (not as it has been popularized in the West as a way to enhance sexual prowess – but as pertains to the practices of the esoteric, secretive, and arduous Buddhist school of thought) which operates on the philosophy that by practicing meditation and renunciation in the midst of the most sensually overwhelming state that exists – i.e. (highly ritualized) sexual activity – is to partake in one of the most effective vehicles toward enlightenment. This is because sex presents a human being with the greatest sensual context in which to test and challenge his or her insight into impermanence – the fundamental mutability, egoless, fluid state of reality – including a non-attachment to sensual input. Such an approach toward eroticism, so counter to the usual emotional and pleasure-based modes in a human being’s conception of romance and relationships (especially in the West) – including jealously, possession, ownership – of course also fall in line with the communistic and socialist critiques of capital ownership and egotistical possession being explored by groups like the one portrayed in Mandala and prevalent in both the East and West during the tumultuous era of the Japanese New Wave.
As a demonstration of the practice, Jissoli presents us with a scene in which the “mistress” of the cult – the leader’s “main squeeze” – is overcome and virtually possessed by the spirit of erotic power – (as the leader says, “violated by a silent god”) but with no other person present, no embodied form, just the ethereal energy of arousal manifested as a disembodied force, as she writhes and moans in one of the chambers of the cult’s headquarters, caught somewhere between religious ecstasy and spiritual hysteria – ostensibly channeling these forces in a ritualized and purposeful way. It is a fascinating and frightening sequence, iconic of Jissoji’s persistent examination of the elusive link between sexual and spiritual energy, freedom and embodiment, a tension between the allure of sensational images or experiences and an idealistic, ancient longing for peace – whether personal or societal.
However, walking the line between renunciation and hedonistic sensation in order to explore the phenomenology of freedom, or bring about spiritual insight (or political change) is a dangerous and tricky business. (For this reason, Tantric practitioners are called “firewalkers.”) It helps explain why the generation of “firewalkers” inspiring the New Wave sadly succumbed in so many instances to an over-indulgence in sex and drugs, losing their balance between experimentation and discipline, eventually leading to despair and emotional fragmentation.
As Jissoji aptly demonstrates, surrounding our precious core of earnest, adventurous spirit are a thousand means of corruption, emanating both from our interior ambivalence toward lust and pleasure, our own grappling with the seductive, gravitational pull of ego, and, most insidiously, from others who would use the potency of both sex and religion to sway us to their own selfish or corrupt ends. Mandara is in some sense a horror tale: for it turns out the cult promising a new way of life to the young couples is also a group of manipulative and violent men who deliberately use the lure of spiritual wisdom to satisfy merely sadistic needs – they use methods of brainwashing, manipulation, and secretive traps (and closed circuit TVs) to serve their own mainly sexually voyeuristic ends. Although the peaceful visage of a statue of the Buddha looms over much of the action occurring in the story, his figure remains dark, foreboding; the mood is almost gothic, with heavy organ music playing in the background, many glimpses of castle turrets and inner sanctums, and a pervasive sense of unease. In this search to cast away illusions, disillusionment reigns.
Jissoji is nearly unequaled at showing us the inherent beauty and connective tissueof human eroticism and religious pursuit, but also their emotional pitfalls. (His portrayal of alienated people trying futilely to use the body to escape its very consequences of love and human intimacy brings to mind Bertolucci’s Last Tango In Paris, as well as that Italian filmmakers’ later film The Dreamers, which centers on the link between eroticism, countercultural revolution – in its Parisian form – and allure of cinema itself). He is thus one of the most adept filmmakers working in any language to show the dangerous side of liberation – that in seeking to be free from our demons, or live alongside them through a greater clarity and awareness, we must first arouse their dance in order to confront their distractions and threats. And he illustrates how we don’t always win the confrontation.
A thoroughgoing exploration of the nature of the Self that Buddhism involves can sometimes, especially by the young, be mistaken for a rejection of the Self and meaning, and so there is a thin line for the confused mind between Buddhism and nihilism. The brand of turmoil unleashed by such a misapprehension is a main theme of Jissoji’s work; it is also a prominent idea behind some famous American films dealing with the malevolent, flip side of the search for emotional or spiritual authenticity – for example, the fascistic cult of machismo numbness in Fight Club, or the “reverse-Zen” of Apocalypse Now’s Colonel Kurtz – a good man turned insane by the nonsense of war, relegated to reading the Eliot’s “The Hollow Men” and wishing for regiments of men who can act “without judgment,” – not compassionately, but for the means and ends of atrocity. Mandara dives into the heart of darkness with a relish and intelligence that will be enlivening to American audiences accustomed to simplistic view of both sex and religion. As bookends to Mandara, This Transient Life and Poem are likewise visually hypnotic, intellectually challenging meditations on the synergistic dynamics between eroticism and spirituality, featuring the same bravura camerawork, the same meticulous eye for detail and wonderfully skewed composition, and unflinching look at the labyrinthine complexities of life. Although currently his films are hard to find, I urge you to seek them out.
Bookmark/Search this post with: