But What Is Ecstasy: Akio Jissoji’s The Buddhist Trilogy

New York's Japan Society spotlights three taboo-breaking films from the Japanese New Wave.
Henri de Corinth

Above: Mandala

Only up until the last few years has Akio Jissoji remained on the margins of canonical Japanese cinema of the late 1960s and early 1970s. The director’s status as an outlier—not dissimilar to those of his two closest contemporaries, Koji Wakamatsu and Masao Adachi—had, perhaps, not as much to do with his deployment of the staples of exploitation cinema or subject matter that addressed cultural taboo, but with how his films addressed each through the prism of European new wave aesthetics that had reached Japan by the 1960s that has come to be known as the Japanese New Wave.

The opening sequence of Jissoji’s 1971 Mandala—a series of sex images set against what appears to be a field of white, followed by a fade-in to a montage of Buddha wall paintings—establishes a thesis of sorts for his de facto “Buddhist trilogy.” The films explore how the institutions to which ill-at-ease young men subject themselves are often completely at odds with modernity—specifically as these institutions pertain to sex and religion. This Transient Life (1970) follows Masao, who apprentices under a sculptor of Buddha statues while beginning an incestuous affair with his sister Yuri. Mandala follows Hiroshi, who after joining a sex cult with his wife Yasuko begins to question its notions of personal freedom. Poem (1972) follows Jun, an illegitimate member of a wealthy family who serves as a caretaker to the family’s house and protests when they decide to sell it.

Jissoji’s subjects struggle with "place" figuratively and literally, and bring the identity value—as Ivan Villarmea Alvarez defined it—of a place to the fore. Because the identity value of film objects—an omote mask in This Transient Life, a hotel in Mandala, a tombstone in Poem—defines the portrayal of such as a sign at once rooted in an array of cultural criteria and nevertheless always changing, Jissoji portrays a Japan becoming modern and archaic simultaneously. The cinematography of This Transient Life is distinguished by endlessly moving dolly footage of a monastery and its environs. Early passages of Mandala take place in a love hotel, the design and portrayal of which break the structure down to nearly-abstracted geometric forms. Likewise, the human figure is often filmed in the abstract, their faces hidden in a corner or trapped in the upper or lower half of the frame. These shots suggest a latent desire on the part of Jissoji’s subjects to remove themselves from the world somehow. In two late scenes in Mandala, for instance, cult members, having become transient after leaving their house permanently, stop to sit by a rivulet and later in an ornate boat along a shore. Both scenes then cut to an identical shot with them having vanished completely, with the film stock also changing suddenly from color to black and white.

Above: Mandala

Like those of Wakamatsu and Adachi, Jissoji’s cinema incorporated elements of the pinku genre of the 1960s—low-budget softcore films featuring variations of sex violence and BDSM, comparable to the American "roughies" of the same decade. Jissoji treated sex, however, as a vector that functions no differently than religion for his subjects. The films of the Buddhist trilogy reference Bataille’s L'erotisme both directly and indirectly, Bataille’s text suggesting one’s existence as both discontinuous through one’s death—one person’s mortality is not another’s—and continuous through sexual reproduction—the genetic material of two beings forming one being discontinuous from all others. Sex for pleasure and not for reproduction, then, is a struggle to achieve a feeling of continuity, and it is from this idea that several symbolic associations between mortality and sex emerge. In an early scene in This Transient Life, Masao has visions of Yuri’s corpse and of her wearing an omote mask, implying the discontinuity of both characters, while in a later scene Masao and the sculptor discuss children as a source of faith in one’s species as a whole, implying a continuity of beings through sexual reproduction.

Above: This Transient Life

“A human being wanders about, looking for a brief taste of ecstasy,” says Maki, the cult leader from Mandala. “But what is ecstasy?” Jissoji’s films will often address the ideological structures that shape his subjects’ desires. Poem features a scene where Jun reads Klossowski’s La monnaie vivante, which states that human desire is expressed through a simulacrum that is largely shaped by industrialization, creating a kind of “economics of pleasure.” Jissoji suggests these economics through pinku tropes regarding the status of women in all three films. While Jissoji’s men are brooding and aggressive, his women are often vapid and flirtatious. The films’ depictions of rape and incest are largely an iteration of staples not just of the pink genre but of pornography as a whole, if one understands them as a deposit of one’s neuroses that emerge during psychosexual development. Jissoji dissects those staples in scenes where characters observe sexual activity remotely. The priest Ogino’s witnessing and concealment of incest in This Transient Life and the characters’ use of surveillance cameras in hotel rooms in Mandala collapse any distinction between the voyeuristic practice of the films’ subjects and that of the viewer.

One could understand these sequences as a confounding of signifiers that emerge from socially-enforced notions of masculine (enforced as the “positive” or norm according to Beauvoir) and feminine (enforced as the “negative” or other). By portraying subjects watching sex within a narrative rather than merely sex by itself within a narrative, Jissoji turns the ideological structure of the "normal" masculine offset by the "abnormal" feminine on its head through remote surveillance, exposing a world where women are unable to realize themselves as subjects. This could also be understood as an allusion to the cultural production in which Jissoji and his contemporaries worked—being the templates of pinku, exploitation films, and the like—as an instance of the commodifying effect of cinema on the viewer’s desire. Jissoji also parlays ideological structures into the physical structures of the hotel and temple in Mandala, portraying them as theaters of sexual and religious activity, respectively. It is in these settings where he makes no distinction between sexual climax and ecstatic religious feeling, the effect of both being the same for the subject. Consider a sequence in Mandala where footage of a cult member in the throes of a spiritual trance is intercut with erotic still photographs.

Above: Mandala

Most film writing on Japanese cinema from this time contextualizes it in terms of the Japanese New Wave, which by extension implies that the films of the generation born throughout the 1930s and who came of age during World War II—Oshima, Yoshida, Terayama, Obayashi, and others—somehow reflect a cultural zeitgeist in their cinema as a consequence. Yet this is the fallout of distinctly Western thinking applied to the East. When we say that a film portrays a cultural zeitgeist, we mean a reductive version of an antiquated concept from nineteenth-century Germany that had been adopted by the generation born in the United States immediately after World War II in their tendency to idealize counterculture media. If the intent is to portray cultural zeitgeist from the start, the reception is then charged with having “read” the film text correctly or incorrectly. Prior to that reception, however, what is actually portrayed is the deposit of complex social relationships between an “aggregate of individuals,” to use Hiroshi’s phrase from Mandala, rather than a vague “sensibility” of a larger population or institution. The extent to which an individual is subject to ideological institutions is at the center of the Buddhist trilogy. In the final act of Mandala, Hiroshi buys a sword and a collection of 8th-century poetry, then boards a train that enters a tunnel set against a cacophony of city noise. For its part, genre and exploitation cinema in both the East and West has always relied on an intentional disregard of modernity through antiquated signs for dramatic effect, yet Jissoji’s Japan reveals the struggle to distinguish the antiquated from the modern.

Akio Jissoji: The Buddhist Trilogy is showing February 15 and 22, 2020 at Japan Society in New York.

Don't miss our latest features and interviews.

Sign up for the Notebook Weekly Edit newsletter.


Akio Jissoji
Please sign up to add a new comment.


Notebook is a daily, international film publication. Our mission is to guide film lovers searching, lost or adrift in an overwhelming sea of content. We offer text, images, sounds and video as critical maps, passways and illuminations to the worlds of contemporary and classic film. Notebook is a MUBI publication.


If you're interested in contributing to Notebook, please see our pitching guidelines. For all other inquiries, contact the editorial team.