19 October 2010

Zen & Its Opposite: Essential (& Turbulent) Japanese Art House


Last Friday, the Japan Society in New York opened its Fall-Winter monthly classics series with Masaki Kobayashi’s riveting film Kwaidan (怪談/Kaidan). ‘Kwaidan’ – or ‘Kaidan’  – means “ghost story” and it is based on Lafadadio Hearn’s collection of Japanese folk tales Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things (1904). The Japan Society could have used Hearn’s book title as an alternative title for their upcoming program of films, for they really are a strange collection of nightmarish tales.
 Kwaidan - Criterion Collection 
I found it interesting when reading the program’s synopsis that the series was designed to explore the “little-understood, paradoxical unity of zen and violence,” which the writer of the program puts into the context of Brian Daizen Victoria’s book Zen at War (1997). This relationship between Buddhism and suffering has been on my mind a lot recently because of the research I have been doing into the career of Kihachiro Kawamoto. In fact, you can hear me discussing it with Jon Jung, Rufus de Rham, and Josh Samford in their upcoming Vcinema Podcast memorial tribute to Satoshi Kon and Kawamoto.

Many people who love alternative animation – such as one of my favourite bloggers over at Anipages (read Ben Ettinger’s insightful desciptions of KK’s films here) - struggle with the works of Kawamoto because of their seeming focus on the suffering of humanity. In an interview for the Japan Media Arts Plaza, Takayuki Oguchi asked Kawamoto where this came from in his films, and he responded that he was influenced in this respect by Noh theatre – and by a book by Susuki Daisetsu called Studies on Zen (Zen no Kenkyu). Suffering and human hardship, according to Zen Buddhism should not entirely be thought of in a negative context, but as part of the process one goes through on the path to enlightenment.

The program director for the Japan Society has chosen these films because they each illustrate one or more of the“Six Planes of Existence — a Buddhist concept commonly referred to as Six Paths (Rokudō 六道 or Rokudō-rinne 六道輪廻) in Japan — within“the realm of Birth and Death” (Samsara).”


I wish that I could personally attend the screenings because I love to watch films on 35mm with an audience. I will have to content myself with watching the Criterion releases of the films. But thank you to the Japan Society for reminding me of the Zen Buddhist aspects of these films – a wider context for me to think about as I continue my own journey through Japanese visual culture.  Would love to hear from anyone who attends the screenings on their reactions.

Upcoming Screenings (click on the images for more info on the Criterion DVDs):

Onibaba - Criterion Collection 
Kaneto Shindo’s Onibaba (鬼婆, 1964)
Friday, November 12, 2010
Fires on the Plain - Criterion Collection 
Kon Ichikawa’s Fires on the Plain (野火/Nobi, 1959)
Friday, December 10, 2010
 Jigoku - (The Criterion Collection)
Nobuo Nakagawa’s Hell (地獄/Jigoku, 1960)
Friday, January 21, 2011
The Sword of Doom - Criterion Collection 
Kihachi Okamoto’s Sword of Doom (大菩薩峠/Daibosatsu Toge, 1966)
Friday, February 18, 2011

The Japan Society
333 East 47th Street
New York, NY

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