Buddhism in Japanese feature film

Ono Seiko and Aaron Gerow onogerow
Tue Jul 6 21:24:07 EDT 1999

The subject of Buddhism in Japanese film is a sticky one, especially 
considering the tendency of some orientalist-oriented criticism to see 
Zen in everything Japanese, but that should not stop us from considering 
the topic.

One suggestion I would make is to consider some of the many Buddhist 
priest biopics that have been produced in Japan.  Two that particularly 
come to mind were produced by Nagata Masaichi, himself a Nichiren 
Buddhist who invested in two biopics on that priest (perhaps as a sign of 
his devotion?):

_Nichiren to Moko daishurai_ (1958, dir. Watanabe Kunio)
(This is particularly interesting as a Daiei attempt to equal Cecil B. 
DeMille by effectively turning Moses into Nichiren.  A big religious 

_Nichiren_ (1979, dir. Nakamura Noboru)

There are also several biopics of Shinran, at least one of Kukai, quite a 
number of films on Sen Rikyu (e.g., the Kumai vs. Teshigahara battle in 
1989), and a recent (pretty bad) film on Ryokan.  Just page through the 
Pia Cinema Guide and you could probably find some more.

Biopics as a form pose a lot of interesting issues for religious cinema.  
First, there is the conflict between the generic requirements (often 
borrowed from Hollywood works on non-reigious or Christian figures) and 
the Buddhist message (i.e., are the results different from the usual 
biopic, either from Hollywood or from Japan?).  Second, the interaction 
between the requirements of spectacle (most of the above films are 
big-budget period spectacles) and spirituality.  Third, the question of 
how confining religiousity to the presentation of a narrativized 
individual history (always performed by a recognized star: Hasegawa 
Kazuo, Yorozuya Kinnosuke, etc.) relates to contemporary Japanese views 
of Buddhism (i.e., are there any representations of collective or 
transcendent religiousity?).

Aaron Gerow

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