Thursday, 15 December 2011

Good Movie: Zen

"This is gonna be a short movie."

That's what I thought when I bought Zen (禅), a biodrama about Eihei Dogen, founder of the Soto Zen sect. Dogen is a seminal figure, but he's famous, even in Soto, for being completely unmovable. Two hours of watching a stone-faced Japanese guy sit perfectly still, broken only to yell at his students when they fail to do likewise. Fun for the whole family.

Fortunately, director Takahashi Banmei had the sense to scrap the legend and seek the soul. Which, one supposes, Dogen must have had. In fact, Takahashi's Dogen is not just sensitive, he's downright soft. He actually cries, for God's sake! Four times!!!

Takahashi sees Dogen as a crusader, first against the comfortable, corrupt Buddhism of medieval Japan, and by extension, the violent tendencies of Japanese culture. His motivation remains under-explained; as in oral tradition, the boy loses his mother, and vows to find a path out of misery for all humanity. Alright. But peoples' mothers die all the time, and they don’t hike across China to end suffering. Why did he?

Takahashi begs the question; he wants to get to The Story ("Dogen vs. The Volcano"), and his unorthodox grasp of storytelling makes what happens next one of the great cinematic epics.

It also makes it hard to review. See, this is a visual movie. Oh, there's plenty of dialogue. Important dialogue. Powerful dialogue. It's just, like, so not the story. That is in the images, scenes so saturated with meaning that every one, whether a sweeping vista or the monastery kitchen, is a sutta. I've seen it a few times now, and no longer even bother to turn on the subtitles. (And let me assure you, 僕の日本語 外人のめちゃくちゃですね 。)

So how do you describe a movie that seems to bypass your brain, like you're receiving it in the marrow of your bones? Well, for starters, my film reviews usually include three screen-caps. You'll note a few more here. You can't review Zen with three screen-caps. And these are just half the ones I collected for it. (Click on them. See them bigger.)

In short, Zen is a truly Zen experience, and a deeply moving one at that.

Another facet of Takahashi's "outsider" genius (he's most known for dirty, edgy grinders) is his gift for iconoclasm. In this case he gave the lead to a kabuki actor. Yeah, that's what you want to play the Stone Buddha: an opera singer. But as much as the cinematography, Nakamura Kantarou is this movie. He manages to be just human enough, without getting cuddly, and also remarkably supple. He's got that Dogen steel, sure, but he's never macho. This is not Dogen as samurai; this is Dogen as priest.

Irish priest, in fact; this is a very religious movie. And that's weird; Zen itself is highly suspicious of the thing Christians call "praise," and our movies generally reflect this preference for practice over preaching. But Takahashi's Dogen can't shut up about the Buddha. And while the film does heavily emphasise sitting (for once, thank God), we also see Dogen preach. That's right: preach. At the drop of a deep-dish monk hat, my dear. Is it because Takahashi isn't a Zen Buddhist? Or is he trying to tell us something? I don't know. But I like it. It's fresh. I dig this Dogen.

There are other gems here: Dogen's love of China (some of the film's nuance will be lost on those who can't detect his frequent shifts from native Japanese to his second language, and back); his obsession with the moon, now a Zen obsession; the view of medieval Kyoto, Japan's holy city, as one big brothel; Dogen's rejection, no less dramatic today than it was in 1220, of social distinctions and bourgeois values. 
"We don't care about your past here," he tells a prostitute who wants to take orders. 

I could snipe at a few things, but they'd be the same things reviewers always snipe at. ("Too derivative. Too Hollywood. Not enough cowbell.") But from my cushion, the only real problem is the title. This movie is not about Zen. I suspect that's why it remains obscure. (A big-budget studio title, and sold only on Japanese Amazon. At least at the moment.) So people who don't care about Zen won't see it, and those that do, don't either. And that's too bad, because it demands to be seen. So what should Takahashi have called it? Something about the moon, maybe. Nah, that would only net a lot of disappointed middle school girls.

Anyway, here's the bottom line: he's strong, he's sensitive, he's Dogen. See the movie. It's good.


  1. I loved the groovy Enlightenment scene.

    The movie is also available at my old blog:

    If you want to bend a precept.

  2. Thanks, brother! This is one case where bending isn't breaking, as far as I'm concerned; the product isn't available for sale, at least not unless you're Japanese. So I can't sympathise with the merchant class on this one.

    I hear you on the Enlightenment scene. That was one of my minor snipes; very (too?) 60s. I'd'a done it differently, but it does underscore the director's religious theme.

  3. I liked the movie too. Also think the Enlightenment scene was pretty corny.

  4. That photo of the person sitting and the bird with the mountains is amazing. Tempted to steal it and use it as a screen background. Reading this made me realize I have not finished watching a PBS series I started on Wild China. Incredible wild places still in that country. I know, sort of unrelated to this post but still.

  5. Yeah, that's one of the last scenes in the movie, and it's not explained to viewers, just served up and left as a tantalising question. (Another instance of Takahashi's good film-making.) It's Dogen's favourite student, a Chinese guy, actually, who left the monastery after Dogen died and became a hermit in a remote part of Japan. It's just a brief moment in the film, but my favourite, for fairly predictable reasons.

    I agree with you about China. Big country, extremely diverse, rich in every sense.


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