In memoriam Jissoji Akio

Alexander Jacoby a_p_jacoby at
Mon Dec 18 10:02:17 EST 2006

Dear All,
  Although Roland reported the death of Akio Jissoji a few weeks ago, no one seems to have commented much in response. Last week in the course of my research and as a posthumous tribute I watched a number of his films, including the four early ATG art house features. I found them intriguing, and Mujo and Uta, in particular, contain some of the most extraordinary single images in Japanese cinema. I was overall somewhat uncertain as to how I responded to his work, and wondered if those who have devoted more thought to the films could give their thoughts on the following. They are mainly questions of interpretation so there is no right answer - I'm just interested in how others on the list respond to the films.
  1) Jissoji is always referred to as a consciously Buddhist filmmaker, and Buddhist motifs permeate both his art films and his pulp movies. However, I wonder how positive people feel his attitude to Buddhism is. For instance, in Mandala several characters get into a boat using the mandala of the title as the sail. The hero, watching from the beach, realises that they are going to die, and sure enough in the next shot their bodies are washed up on the beach. Here, the associations of the religion seem very negative. In Mujo, a major plot strand concerns the incestuous anti-hero's apprenticeship to a famous sculptor of Buddhist statues. In this case, I wasn't sure how to interpret the relation between the sexual themes and the religious themes, although it's clear there's an overlap (the anti-hero has an affair with the sculptor's wife). Is Jissoji suggesting that conventional sexual morality is irrelevant in the face of a greater truth - that life is transient? Or is he
 hinting, by contrast, that this Buddhist doctrine is inadequate as a response to the very real suffering we've witnessed? The same question could be asked about Uta.
  2) Related to the above - Jissoji seems to love the visual qualities of traditional Japanese art and architecture. His filming of wooden buildings, both sacred and secular, draws out the textures of the wood in a very sensual way; ditto the stone of the gravestones and the stone steps where the last scenes of Mujo and Uta are set. But how positive are these associations? The sculptor in Mujo dies after finishing his statue. In Uta, there's a striking shot of the hero surrounding by Buddhist calligraphy, and this is at a stage when he is entering what seems like a precipitous mental decline. Also, how does the incest in Mujo relate to this concern with traditional culture - given that incest is a recurrent motif in ATG films, and Shinoda's Himiko, for instance, finds incest at the foundation of Japanese society?
  3) Jissoji's ATG films are all full of startling imagery, and Mujo in particular uses some very remarkable tracking shots, often moving in different directions from the actors. My question here is how integrated people feel these images are into the narrative and thematic concerns. I often felt that certain aspects of the film were used purely for their formal impact. But would some people make a case for Jissoji's style being more expressive than I felt it was? How, in other words, do people interpret form and content as relating in his films?
  4) A question no doubt made necessary by my incomplete competence in Japanese... where precisely are the films set? Part of Mujo is explicitly set in Kyoto, and I believe I recognised the Chion-in as one of the featured temples. But are we told exactly where the small town/village scenes take place? Ditto for Uta, where Kyoto is referred to in the dialogue, but much of the film is again set in a small town. Here the last scene involves the hero taking the shinkansen west to Tokyo, but I didn't recognise the station where he boards, or the city streets in the scenes immediately preceding (it could have been Kyoto, but no obvious landmark is visible). In Asaki Yume Mishi, where, I must confess, the period dialogue tended to defeat me, I think I recognised both Kyoto's Hirosawa-no-ike, and Hachiman-gu in Kamakura. The film is set, of course during the Kamakura bakufu. Mandala is more abstract and I wondered if we were supposed to think of it as having a non-specific
  Enough for now - I'll be intrigued by any and all responses, as my main feeling right now is uncertainty as to how much I like his films and how usefully to interpret them.

Roland Domenig <roland.domenig at> wrote:
  I just got the very sad news that director Jissoji Akio passed away last night. Jissoji Akio was one of the most interesting and, outside of Japan, underrated Japanese directors. 
He started his career as TV-director for TBS and became famous with the Ultraman and Ultra Seven series. In 1968 he directed the 44-minute independent feature film Yoiyami semareba (When Twilight Draws Near) based on a script by Oshima Nagisa. The film, which was originally planed as TV-feature, was finally released by the Art Theatre Guild that also produced Jissoji's following films after his departure from TBS in 1970. His first ATG feature, Mujo (This Transient Life, 1970), became the most successful film of the early ATG years and is one of the most brilliant Japanese films of the 1970s. Mujo won Jissoji also international recognition - it was awarded the Grand Prix at the Locarno Film Festival and caused a sensation at a FIPRESCI conference in Milano about eroticism in film. With his subsequent films Mandara (Mandala, 1971), Uta (Poem, 1972) and Asaki yumemishi (Life of a Court Lady, 1974) Jissoji established himself as the most important ATG director of the 1970s
 (beside Kuroki Kazuo), but couldn't achieve the same critical and commercial success as with Mujo. In 1979 he once again returned to his origins with a cinema version of Ultraman. After a 10 years absence from cinema he directed Teito monogatari (Tokyo: the Last Megalopolis, 1988), which consolidated Jissoji’s reputation as cult director. In the 1990s he directed a number of adult videos as well as the Edogawa Rampo adaptations Yaneura no sanposha (Watcher in the Attic, 1994) and D-zaka no satsujin jiken (The D-slope murdercase, 1998). Rampo was also the inspiration for the omnibus film Ranpo jigoku (Rampo Noir, 2005) that was shown at film festivals around the globe. The Udine Far East Film Festival dedicated this year a special to Jissoji, but he couldn’t follow the invitation because he had to undergo medical treatment. His final films, one episode of the omnibus film Yume juya (Dream of Ten Nights) after Natsume Soseki and a cinema remake of his 1971 TBS TV-series
 Shiruba kamen (Silver Mask) were finished this autumn. Jissoji didn’t live to see their premieres, he died on November 29th at age 69. 
Although Jissoji is best know as director of the Ultraman series and his eroticism in films such as Mujo and Mandara, he was also a prolific writer and author of several books, a successful stage director, especially of Opera (I remember vividly his production of Mozart’s Magic flute last year with Ultraman monsters as Monostatos’ slaves) and, perhaps most of all, the hugest fans of locomotives in Japan. His death is a huge loss.

Roland Domenig
Institute of East Asian Studies
Vienna University

 Send instant messages to your online friends 
-------------- next part --------------
An HTML attachment was scrubbed...

More information about the KineJapan mailing list