Akio Jissoji’s first film produced by the Art Theatre Guild (ATG), “This Transient Life” was also one of the most successful, receiving a wider release outside the ATG circuit and winning the Grand Prix at the Locarno film festival in 1970, thus gaining international acknowledgement for both the director and his movie, and the Guild.
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The film revolves around siblings Masao and Yuri who live in a huge estate near Lake Biwa, north of Kyoto. Despite being born in a rather traditional family, both siblings are rather rebellious for the particular times, with Yuri rejecting all proposals from her parents to marry her off, and Masao to attend the university or follow in the footsteps of his merchant father, instead obsessing with books and Buddhist sculptures. Masao in particular fights frequently with his father regarding his life decisions, with the latter threatening to disown him a number of times. The local “circle” is completed by Iwashita, a student who lodges at the house, and Ogino, a young priest and former classmate of Masao, both of which are in love with Yuri. During a trip of his parents to Tokyo, Masao leaves for Osaka to speak with the famous sculptor of Buddhist statues Takayasu Mori. Speaking, however, is not the only thing he does there, since the rather open courting of Mori’s second wife leads him to a night in bed with her and a clash with Mori’s son from his first wife, Takahiro.
However, the truly taboo action takes place after he returns to his estate to find his sister alone in the premises. A game with masks from No-theater takes a completely different turn when the two siblings make passionate love, and in essence begin a truly forbidden relationship. Even worse, after a while, Yuri becomes pregnant but Masao manages to convince Iwashita to marry her, to the disgust of Ogino, who knows everything about their incestuous relationship. Masao eventually leaves the estate to become an apprentice to Mori, but at the same time retains a relationship with the sculptor’s wife, with the three even sleeping together, again to the disgust of Takahiro. Eventually, Masao’s acts take their toll, but not towards whom you would imagine.
Incest was one of the recurring themes of ATG films during the 60s and early 70’s, in productions like Toshio Matsumoto’s “Funeral Parade of Roses” or Kazuo Kuroki’s “Preparations for the Festival”. However, Akio Jissoji’s presentation of a theme that still remains taboo is probably the most scandalous, particularly because his characters do not seem to have any remorse about their deeds at all, while Masao barely hides the fact, even clashing with the people who learn the truth, at least the ones who manage to confront him.
The incestuous story, however, is not the only main element of the narrative; one could say it is not even the central one. Instead, the main theme of the films seems to be the clash between the old and the new, the traditional values and the distinct hierarchy of the past generation and the disregard for any of them by the new (who seem to turn to nihilism in Masao’s case), between religion (and particularly Buddhism) and rationalism. These clashes all involve Masao and one or two other characters, although their nature differs, since the one between Masao and Yuri and their father is quite one- sided, with mostly father’s opinion being heard, the one between Masao and Ogino having the form of a debate, and the one between Masao and Takahiro being mostly physical.
Additionally, Jissoji explores Buddhism and the way its teachings apply in (the then) modern society, both through dialogue and symbolism, with the scene with the buried carp near the end of the film being the most distinct sample of the second.
Another focus of the film is sex drive, which, in this case, is presented as one of the most powerful forces behind any human action, which, in its turn is a direct comment about human nature. Jissoji seems to present the female characters as the one usually initiating these extreme sexual behaviors, but also the men seem unable to resist their primal urges. This aspect takes a rather visual form in the movie, with Jissoji and his three cinematographers, Yuzo Onagaki, Masao Nakabori and Kazumi Oneda, not pulling any punches in the many and quite lengthy sex scenes of the film.
Furthermore regarding the cinematography, one could easily say that is one of the production’s most impressive elements, with the four of them presenting a number of unique and quite captivating techniques, mostly involving the continuous movement of the camera in any way possible, even including scenes where it seems that the camera is swinging like a pendulum. Another unique element of the production values is the exceptional sound by Koichi Hirose, Masao Izumida and Tetsuzo Ozawa, with Jissoji using this aspect as an inseparable part of the narrative, heightening or even dictating the sentiment he wanted each scene to portray.
Ryo Tamura gives a great performance as Masao, with Jissoji anchoring the film on his performance and him delivering in the most impressive fashion. Michiko Tsukasa as Yuri and Eiji Okada as Mori also stand out, although, as is the case with the whole cast (at least for the most part), mainly they react to Tamura’s performance.
“This Transient Life” is a true masterpiece for a number of the reasons I just mentioned, but most of all, because Jissoji managed to combine the pinku film with the experimentally arthouse one in the most meaningful fashion.