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January 03, 2012

Nichiren and the Great Mongol Invasion

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Nichiren to moko daishurai / Nichiren - A Man of Many Miracles
Kunio Watanabe - 1958

I first read about this film, mentioned by Donald Richie, without knowing anything about it. The title meant nothing to me until a few years later. Being a Nichiren Buddhist not long after this introduction to Japanese film, my interest was piqued. I even bought the Japanese DVD, even though it lacks English subtitles. Having been a Buddhist for about thirty-eight years, I pretty much know the main narratives about Nichiren. I had no idea that there was a subtitled edition of this film until I browsed through a list of DVDs starring Raizo Ichikawa from, shall we say, an independent dealer of subtitled Japanese films.

The period of life covered here starts from the day Nichiren, a Buddhist monk, declares that the way to practice Buddhism correctly is to chant, "Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo", essentially the title of the Lotus Sutra. The film ends when the huge Mongol invasion is repelled by one very strong typhoon that sinks hundreds of ships carrying thousands of soldiers, off the coast of Japan. The basics of the story are true, even if some of history is changed. I don't know if anyone experienced any kind of epiphany when watching the film, or any kind of change of faith. To me the main motivation of the filmmakers was more of an emphasis on historical spectacle, a chance to show what the special effects department could do, and to keep some of Daiei Studios big stars busy.

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Paul Schrader wrote about what he called "Over-abundant" means in his book, Transcendental Style in Film, using Cecil B. DeMille's work, primarily in his second version of The Ten Commandments as his main example. For subtlety, look elsewhere. Here the soundtrack includes a chorus melodiously chanting "Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo" to music. A scene with Nichiren about to be beheaded features the would-be executioner electrocuted by some very unconvincing lightning. About to be dumped at Sado Island, riding a small boat buffeted by some big waves, Nichiren takes a stick, points it at the water, and the kanji for "Nam-Myo-Ho-Renge" appears superimposed on the now calm sea. Some of the dialogue is recognizably from the letters of Nichiren, but when people speak to each other, it is not in conversation but more of an exchange of overly dramatic declarations.

As often happens with historical films, the makers are a bit loose with the facts. Even with allowances for dramatic license, I have to wonder if there was anyone to give some advice on the set regarding Buddhism. At one point, Nichiren is seen having a small enshrined statue in his house, when one of the main parts of this Buddhist practice is the absence of anything other than chanting to a scroll, known as the gohonzon. I also have to assume that when a gohonzon is actually shown, it is a movie prop, and not the work of a temple based calligrapher. Nichiren's parents appeared much more prosperous than is suggested by the biographical writings, especially considering that this is a caste bound society where fishermen were considered lower class. With the exception of the shack in Sado Island, Nichiren's various residences are much bigger and nicer than one would expect from someone who relied on the donations of his believers.

Kazuo Hasegawa, with his baby face and luxurious eyelashes, may have been a big star. At age 50, he was also a bit too old to play someone in his thirties. Given that extant artwork isn't the most accurate indicator of what anyone in 13th Century Japan, Hasegawa's Nichiren is no more or less true than Jeffrey Hunter, Max Von Sydow, or anyone else who took on the role of Jesus. Back when he was still groomed to be a matinee idol, Shintaro Katsu plays Shijo Kingo, a famous samurai believer, while Raizo Ichikawa appears as a government official and seemingly the only straight-shooter in the otherwise corrupt shogunate. Kurosawa stock player Takashi Shimura has a small role as a peasant who helps feed and protect Nichiren. Simply viewed for the appearance of a cast from Japanese cinema's golden age makes Nichiren and the Great Mongol Invasion entertaining. It might have been somewhat better had Kunio Watanabe's ideas for filming in wide screen extended to more than several lateral tracking shots, or having the actor run straight stage right or stage left across the screen. A smarter film that used a more sophisticated means of conveying Nichiren Buddhism was written about here. Still, I'm comfortable enough with my own faith and how it is depicted in film to giggle when, in response to Nichiren's stating to a young samurai that he predicted the Mongol invasion, the subtitle reads, "No kidding?".

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at January 3, 2012 08:54 AM