One thing I learned on coming to Japan as an earnest foreign student of Buddhism was that the young monks — those shaven-headed fellows in picturesque robes diligently sweeping the temple grounds — are less ascetic than they look. Off duty, they knock back beers, warble at karaoke bars and in general comport themselves like normal Japanese guys.
Hardly surprising, since many are not sages in training but heirs apparent to a family business. Their promotion to abbot — i.e., a temple’s CEO — often depends less on the pureness of their practice than their bloodline. Something similar goes on in many other enterprises and organizations here, from medical clinics to political parties.
“Boku wa Bosan” (“I Am a Monk”), Yukinori Makabe’s revealing if plodding film about a 24-year-old monk who succeeds his saintly grandfather as abbot, admits all the above while being a heartfelt shout-out to Japanese monkdom. Its worthy aim is to humanize what is an exotic and somewhat off-putting breed for many ordinary Japanese. (Given that folks here interact with organized Buddhism mainly at funerals, where priests chant hard-to-parse Sanskrit sutras, this attitude is understandable.)
Based on the best-selling memoirs of a monk at Eifukuji Temple, the 57th stop on the fabled 88-temple pilgrimage in Shikoku, the film is scrupulously and comically true to the monkish life as it’s actually lived.
The hero, Susumu Shirakawa (Atsushi Ito), may be versed in esoteric Buddhism, but as the film begins he is an unhappy bookstore clerk. Susumu is not alone in his discontent: One of his former classmates at a Buddhist university, the shy Kurimoto (Gaku Hamada), is drudging away as a salaryman, while another, the outgoing Minegishi (Daichi Watanabe), is dutifully apprenticing at the family temple.
Then Susumu’s grandfather (Toru Shinagawa) is diagnosed with terminal cancer and our hero decides to become a monk, taking the name Koen. When grandpa dies, the still-green Koen is saddled with the often-frustrating minutiae of running a temple, from discussing a new parking lot with easily distracted temple elders to hearing a pitch from a pushy temple supplies salesman.
The job has its upsides, however, such as presiding over a wedding and celebrating afterwards with the bride (Mizuki Yamamoto) and the proprietor of a local bar (Junpei Mizobata), both loyal childhood friends.
Then bad things start happening to the good people around Koen, including a straight-talking temple elder (Issey Ogata) who was close to his grandfather and tells Koen he is a worthy replacement. But is he really? Koen may know the doctrine and the correct words to say, but whether he can move people with them is another matter.
A 31-year-old veteran best known for playing good-hearted goofs, Atsushi Ito gives a sincere and solid performance as Koen, despite looking, with his shaved head, uncomfortably close to middle age.
But first-time director Yukinori Makabe tells his hero’s story as a mix of softball NHK documentary and weepy medical melodrama, with a dollop of basic Buddhist homilies. And the film’s pace rarely exceeds the deliberate tread of the mostly elderly pilgrims making their way around the 88 temples of Shikoku.
Far lighter on its feet was “Fanshi Dansu” (“Fancy Dance”), Masayuki Suo’s 1989 comedy about a punk rocker (Masahiro Motoki) turned trainee monk.
But Suo’s aim was solely entertainment. Makabe’s also seems to be audience enlightenment.
To spur spiritual awakening, monks at Zen temples sharply rap the shoulders of nodding meditators with a long paddle. Audiences at “I Am a Monk” might benefit from their firm-handed services, but the film’s creators are the ones who really needed that wake-up thwack.