Suffering Of Ninko (Cert 15)
2 Discs DVD/Blu-ray combo (Distributor: Third Window Films) Running Time: 71 minutes approx.
It must be every (well most) man’s dream to be irresistible to women, at least those who are into women and have a large enough ego to demand such a thing. But there is always a caveat and the well-worn adage of “be careful what you wish for” always casts an ominous shadow over us. Now, imagine you are someone for whom this unbelievable gift would be a curse…
Ninko (Masato Tsujioka) is a novice Buddhist monk in the Edo period, whose unbridled desire for asceticism is manifest in his complete dedication to his daily duties at the monastery and studying of the mantras. Ninko is also inexplicably attractive to all women – and a few gay men too – which he has to resist as any form of sexual conduct or even thought is a sin under Buddhist doctrine.
After a surreal meeting with a strange masked woman in the forest, Ninko is slowly driven mad by his increasing lurid thoughts. Sent away by the chief monk to reclaim his purity, Ninko encounters a ronin Kanzo (Hideta Iwaishi) outside a small village where the men are mysteriously disappearing, believed to be the work of a female demon Yama-onna (Miho Wakabayashi) known to suck the vitality out of men she seduces.
Every once in a while, a film comes along that is unique in its presentation, dense in its narrative and baffling in its motives, an arthouse lovers’ dream and a ball of arcane confusion for the rest of us. Yet despite this, we are left in a state of awe, having been profoundly affected by what we have just seen, by its originality, creativity, and sheer audacity for a debut work.
Suffering Of Ninko is such a film. Partly crowdfunded thus made on a modest budget, it was written, directed, produced, part-edited and part animated by Norihiro Niwatsukino and is unlike anything else you’ll see for a while, yet all of this is achieved through the same approach to simplicity as Ninko and the Buddhist monks. It is the ideas that make this such an arresting film to watch even when it gets a little confusing.
I won’t pretend that I understood everything because I didn’t but the odd thing is I don’t really need to understand it. This is a film where the journey is the integral objective here and trust me when I say that Ninko and the audience go on one hell of a journey. You may sympathise with Ninko, your testosterone levels may ask the question why he doesn’t forego his chastity with all that female attention, you may even worry for him.
The film is narrated by a disembodied voice of Qyoko Kudo, her gentle lilting tones adding pathos and ethereal empathy to the proceedings. Through a combination of live action footage and artwork in the style of traditional Japanese scroll paintings, woodprints and Buddhist iconography, the scene is set for a classical tale of whimsy and bespoke Asian folklore.
Much of this is animated, nothing flashy but sufficient in relaying its meaning, becoming a focal point later in the story. Initially it creates the impression of this being a bawdy comedy with the desires of Ninko’s lusty female admirers represented in art form as the Japanese equivalent of the old British naughty beach postcards. The peak of this is a chase sequence of Ninko being pursued by bare breasted women, reminiscent of but less exploitative than a similar scene in Monty Python’s Meaning Of Life.
It is something of a leitmotif that doesn’t outstay its welcome nor seem as gimmicky or as pretentious as it sounds; in fact, it’s one of the core strengths in making this such an engaging and immersive experience. Given the convention busting arthouse approach to the presentation, it is remarkable that this remains an oddly grounded work with a linear narrative.
The highlight of the first half of the film is Ninko’s nightmarish descent into a psychedelic wormhole inside his mind, where his increasingly prurient thoughts collide head on with his spiritual resolve. Set to the strains of Ravel’s Bolero as played by traditional Japanese instruments, this cavalcade or startling artistic imagery, interpretative dance, and lurid decadence provides one of the most memorable scenes ever captured on film.
Once Ninko begins his pilgrimage, the tone shifts to that of the Hyaku-monogatari or classical Japanese ghost story. The Yama-onna may look like Sadako in a torn red dress but she may also be the key to Ninko’s suffering. The film climaxes (if you’ll pardon the pun) with another visual cacophony as evil meets purity in the only way two sexually depraved beings can, but which is which?
Niwatsukino’s message isn’t exactly clear but not so oblique that we can’t make an interpretation of our own. For this writer, he seems to be suggesting that resisting our inner desires does more harm than good and succumbing to them, even once, is being true to ourselves. Or he is saying that sexual desire is selfish and forcing others to help you satiate your cravings makes you a monster.
Maybe other will find a different meaning to it all, but what matters most is that this story provokes thought and debate yet can be enjoyed as compellingly dark tale inspired by Japanese folklore. And Niwatsukino achieves all of this inside 71 minutes but we are enrapt with what is happening on screen we never notice the time – all we know is that when the end credits arrive we have seen something special.
I can’t call Suffering Of Ninko perfect, a masterpiece or a future classic – cult classic perhaps – nor can I recommend it for general audiences, but as far as exploring film as art, there is nothing like this audacious and exhilarating experience to exemplify this any better.
As debuts go, Niwatsukino has hit the ground running – hard – and his future in cinema is going to be our pleasure.
Japanese Language 2.0 DTS-HD:MA
Interview with Director Norihiro Niwatsukino
Short Film: “Strawberry Jam”
Rating – *** ½
Man In Black