Film / Reviews


Religious film lacks thrill of temptation

by Mark Schilling

I was one of those hippies who got into things Japanese via Zen back in the 1970s. I spent two years practicing zazen in Michigan and I had a first-row seat when Alan Watts — that early explainer of Zen to the West — spoke on campus. I even taped a photo of Shunryu Suzuki, the author of “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind” — still the best introductory book to Zen practice — on my wall.

Living in Japan, however, I soon realized that I was not Zen-monk material and that the local image of Zen is far removed from the West’s often romanticized view. Instead of being mysterious embodiments of “Oriental Wisdom,” Zen monks are figures of fun for Japanese TV comics, who put on bald wigs and bop each other with oversize versions of the paddles real monks use to keep drowsy meditators alert.

Banmei Takahashi’s “Zen” is that rare serious film about this form of Buddhism, which has had a huge cultural influence but is little understood — let alone practiced — by ordinary Japanese. Perhaps it’s a sign that, after decades of a single-minded focus on materialism, the culture is returning to its spiritual roots; or that one Baby Boomer director (Takahashi is 60) is getting religious in his old age.

Director Banmei Takahashi
Run Time 127 minutes
Language Japanese
Opens Now showing (Jan. 16, 2009)

“Zen” focuses on the life of Dogen, the 13th-century monk who founded one of the main Zen sects, Soto-shu. This is an unusual choice, since Dogen was an unflamboyant type who devoted his life to the practice of peaceful (if purposeful) meditation, not the showier varieties of miracle-working found in the usual religious biopic. It is also an inspired one, since Dogen was a fearless spiritual seeker and brilliant writer whose deeds and words still engage. The film is generally faithful to what is known of his life, from the early deaths of his parents to his travels in China and his difficulties with the religious powers-that-be in Japan.

The problem, dramatically, is that Dogen apparently had little in the way of the usual human weaknesses. Takashashi, who wrote the script, tries to solve this problem with fictional characters who have them in spades so that Dogen gets chances to display his compassion. “Zen,” however, suffers from the over-earnestness endemic to the genre: It is trying harder to convert — or at least enlighten — than entertain.

The story starts when Dogen, a boy of 8, is at his mother’s death bed and takes to heart her final request: Find a way to escape human suffering. Soon after, we see him, now a young monk (Kantaro Nakamura), trudging through the Chinese outback in search of a true master. He finds him in Ju-ching (Zheng Tanyong), an elderly Zen priest who urges him to “cast off body and mind” through zazen, which he finally succeeds in doing after hearing another monk scolded for dozing. The sharp words jolt him into his own Awakening.

Following his enlightenment (shown in a whimsically animated shot of Dogen sitting on a cartoon lotus, soaring blissfully into space), he returns to Kyoto, where he soon attracts a small, devoted band of followers, including Ji-uen (Ryushin Tei), a Chinese monk he befriended at Ju-ching’s temple. He also attracts the unfriendly attention of the monks of Kyoto’s Hiezan, a Buddhist center for centuries, who label him a heretic and chase him out of town. Fortunately, he finds a powerful protector in a local magistrate, Hatano Yoshishige (Masanobu Katsumura).

He also renews his acquaintance with Orin (Yuki Uchida), a woman he saved from a sword-wielding samurai as a child and who has since turned to prostitution to feed her baby. Orin is attracted to not just Dogen himself, but his tolerant philosophy of Buddhism, in which even a fallen woman can receive Zen training. Dogen resists her invitation to her futon, though she herself is later tempted by a handsome young monk (Kengo Kora) who serves as the temple cook.

His biggest test comes when the frazzled Shogun (Tatsuya Fujiwara) asks Dogen to deliver him from the ghosts of dead warriors who haunt him, but is enraged by Dogen’s seemingly simple-minded solution: Just sit, without goals, seeing things as they truly are.

The film offers an eloquent explanation of Dogen’s Zen, using his own pithy words, as well as an ideal exemplar in Nakamura, a young kabuki actor who has the right Zen-master look and attitude, but without a trace of more-enlightened-than-thou smugness. Also quite good is Yuya Uchida as Orin, who is both likably natural as a prostitute and touchingly dedicated as an aspiring nun.

In depicting the Dogen/Orin relationship, Takahashi, a former maker of pinku (softcore porn) films, may have been inspired by the notorious “marriage” of Jesus and Mary Magdalene in Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ,” but takes the film in a less controversial direction. Followers will probably be relieved, but I was a bit disappointed. Enlightenment is all well and good, but how, I wondered, would you animate Zen love?