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May 01, 2020

This Transient Life


Akio Jissoji - 1970
Arrow Film BD Region B

About two years ago I was so sick that I went to the hospital. This turned out to be a far wiser course of action than anticipated as x-rays indicated that I had cancer in my left kidney. This was in addition to the chronic kidney disease that was already being treated. One of my doctors told me that I maybe had two years to live. Since I understood in a more concrete way how limited my lifespan was, and still is, I made the decision to stop my impulse purchases of newly available movies and try to watch the many I had collected over a ten year period. I also decided that my final purchase would be Arrow's set of Akio Jissoji's "Buddhist Trilogy".

Being a Buddhist for most of my life, I've had an interest in films with Buddhist content as well as films made by those filmmakers who have identified as Buddhists. And ending my collecting with a film called This Transient Life seemed fitting for me. A reminder that there are multiple sects of Buddhism, and we don't all practice Zen or are guided by the Dalai Lama. And not every film about Buddhism is made by an actual practicing Buddhist. All I could find about Jissoji is that he grew up as part of a Buddhist family. Still, there were things to be gleaned from This Transient Life that I understood within my own studies.

Masao, a young man with no interest in inheriting his father's business, desires to be a sculptor of Buddhist statues. At the same time, he has an incestuous relationship with slightly older sister, an open sexual relationship with the wife of his artistic mentor, and is constantly at odds with a Buddhist priest regarding his understanding of Buddhism. From my own perspective as one who practices a form of Nichiren Buddhism, Masao personifies what is called the poison drum relationship - essentially that one who hears about Buddhism and rejects it still has established a relationship with Buddhism and will will eventually attain enlightenment. This may appear contradictory as Masao's actions are admirable, yet he is sincere about his statue making, offering one such statue to the priest's temple.

Masao's rationale for rejecting Buddhist teaching is arguably a misunderstanding of the use of negation, probably from the Sutra of Immeasurable Meanings that includes the lines, "neither existing nor not existing, neither self nor other, neither square nor round...". Masao interprets this as a nihilistic view of the world. Instead, it may be best understood as an indirect way of saying that the essence of Buddhism is beyond human comprehension and limitations.

There is no Buddhist visual style here, certainly not like what Paul Schrader has written about regarding the films of Yasujiro Ozu and the view from the tatami mat. Jissoji's camera is usually mobile, moving forwards and back, side to side, sometimes searching in the fields or slinking around the corner in the house. There is the repetition of two similar shots of the priest, and a repeating of a series of shots. Perhaps not intentional but the editing structure at these moments reminds me of the recitation of a sutra, with the repeating of a specific phrase or passage. There is also the sound of bells, often what sounds like a door bells, but to me a possible non-diegetic reference to the use of bells as part of the formal Buddhist practice.

David Desser's commentary during specific scenes helps put things in context both in general terms of Buddhism as well as Japanese culture, and Japanese film culture of the time. He also discusses Jissoji's use of camera movement, as well as pointing out the geography of parts of Japan where the This Transient Life was filmed.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at 07:40 AM