The Burning Buddha Man (Moeru butsuzô ningen)

Japan (2013) Dir. Ujicha

“There are many strange things happening in this world”, says the young lady who stars in the live action bookends of this Gekimation opus, and most of these strange things happen in this film!

In a family run temple in Kyoto, the current residents are disturbed by an alien creature trying to steal their Buddha statue, their efforts to prevent him result in the top halves of their bodies separated from their bottom halves. Their teenage daughter Beniko arrives shortly after to witness the carnage and is taken in by a friend of her parents, a strange old monk named Enju.

Enju tells Beniko there has been a spate of thefts of Buddha statues by a cult named SEADDATTHA, claiming to rescue the statues from disrespectful modern people. Enju encourages Beniko to seek revenge but after wandering around Enju’s temple and seeing the strange people and activities going on, Beniko isn’t so sure Enju is on the level. Then she makes a shocking discovery.

Ujicha is a one off that is for sure. His taste for the macabre and offbeat might not be exclusive but nobody delivers their stories in the way the man known to his parents as Satoshi Okuda. Having seen his 2018 film Violence Voyager I thought I might have been prepared for the other titles in his oeuvre, but nothing can prepare anyone for what The Burning Buddha Man has in store.

Like its follow-up, this is another Gekimation film involving cut out figures and objects filmed in real time with real fluids for such effects. Ujicha takes on practically every role on the production front – making the figures and backgrounds, cinematography, editor, director, writer, and he probably made the tea as well. This is a startling achievement in itself, which makes the fact the story is so baffling more remarkable.

Clearly not one for taking things easy, Ujicha could have kept it simple with so many other responsibilities undertaken, instead we get a deceptively simple plot buried under an abstruse narrative and mounds of surreal texture. The live-action opening with the aforementioned female is an early deception – she enters a chamber where a butler awaits, then begins to make the characters for the film whilst a voice over asks whether aliens can trust humans.

No, me neither. Then the film begins proper now in Ujicha’s trademark Gekimation, as the odd looking alien chap steals the Buddha from Beniko’s family by shooting a phallic chord at the statue’s head. This is just the beginning of the film’s priapic leitmotif which gets tawdrier as it goes on, but doesn’t necessarily feel sleazy like Yoshihiro Nishimura, just a little weird a’la Takashi Miike.

Beniko is a subverted Ghibli heroine, her youth and purity being the ultimate weapon to save the day against benevolent antagonists. However, this is where Ghibli comparisons end as you’d ever see Miyazaki got this far out. Along with her catatonic grandmother, Beniko moves in Chez Enju, a nightmare abode influenced by Hieronymus Bosch, where grotesque abandoned children run riot.

During a wander around the place, Beniko meets Enju’s sculptor grandson Enji, who unwittingly tells her everything about the hollowed out Buddha statues he makes and the Matter Transferring Device, used to transport the statues to safety. After taking a tumble down a hole, Beniko discovers an underground lair full of Buddha statues, one of them has her parents fused to it.

Suddenly, the penny drops and taking granny with her, Beniko flees the house but runs into more strange looking monks, revealing themselves as the SEADDATTHA. Except they are not statue thieves, but products of Enju’s human experiments involving melding people to statue to increase their powers. They are the rejects whilst the others have abandoned their humanity and Buddhist teachings to be powerful, and the SEADDATTHA are fighting to readdress the balance.

Or something like that. At the risk of trying to shift attention away from my ability to follow what was going on, it is possible to be distracted by a film’s visuals that one can miss a few beats of the story. In this case, the Giger-esque hybrids that make up the SEADDATTHA, Beniko’s blood red skin colour, and other disturbing imagery are both off-putting and mesmerising that this could have been a nursery rhyme and I’d be none the wiser.

As abstract as this, it boils down to is the age old good vs. evil battle but gets there via some very peculiar and arcane routes indeed. If you strip the ideas back far enough, you can again see some Ghibli parallels, or indeed any heroic journey parable in their basic principles – Beniko has the latent power to defeat Enju and gives herself over to the cause as its last hope – just not with this same aesthetic.

Without being explicit, there is an underlying sense of sexual perversion aimed at Beniko, an uncomfortable staple of Japanese culture that threatens to be lascivious but in this bizarre universe, it’s sadly par for the course. It is still creepier than the weird mutant monks and their half animal/half human appearance, but not as odd as the five monk combination, a sort of mammal/insect version of a Super Sentai group giant robot coalition.

Running just 79-minutes, it is amazing how many ideas Ujicha can cram into this short time even when the story stopped being coherent around the forty minute mark. The Gekimation technique never stops being awe-inspiring to watch, but watching this film after Violence Voyager, it is evident Ujicha’s art improved drastically in the five years between them.

Finishing with the return of the live-action young lady, who was presumably performing this story for us or is part of the story (who knows?), The Burning Buddha Man heralded the arrival of a distinctive filmmaker too transcendental for mere mortals to understand. Nevertheless, as long as Ujicha’s imagination knows no boundaries, he will be an artistic force to be reckoned with.

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