The only predictable fact about notoriously self-funded director Katsuya Tomita’s work is that it’s never predictable. However, you can bet it will contain a hefty dose of careless passion, lots of acute observations, bits and pieces of his own life and few handfuls of rightful social concerns. Predictably, “Tenzo” is no exception; it is nothing I could have anticipated and yet it incorporates all the above.
The film is split in chapters named after the Zen’s 6 tastes – like ‘salty’, ‘spicy hot’, ‘subtle’ – forming the Tenzo eating regime, and follows the parallel stories of two Buddhist priests, Chiken and Ryugyo, both sons of Buddhist monks and both trained together at the Soto Buddhist school 15 years ago. However, their lives cannot be more different today.
Chiken is appointed to a temple in Yamanashi where he is active in the community and runs workshops like “Food and Zen” in which he puts in practice the discipline of Zen Master Dogen and conveys Buddha’s teaching to people through monastery cooking. He has a wife and a son and, when not serving the temple duties, he also contributes to a collective suicide helpline.
On the other hand – and miles away from Yamanashi – in Fukushima, Ryugyo has lost his family temple to the nuclear disaster and the tsunami and he actively helps to rebuilt the community working as a construction worker. Running around aimlessly in his small track, looking for funding for the new temple and sometimes drinking a bit too much, he appears lost and deeply troubled. A big robust man, his physical presence is in striking contrast with his refusal when asked to help out with the suicide helpline. He just cannot make it emotionally.
In Yamanashi though, even Chiken has his fair share of troubles. His young son Hiro has severe food allergies that can lead to anaphylactic shock and his temple duties make him a sometimes-absent father. On top of everything, the suicidal calls are heavy to handle for him too.
Both monks in their own way are dealing with a world that has unexpectedly and rapidly declined. Tomita had filmed Chiken in 2003 for his first film “Above the Clouds”, when he was about to enter – very reluctantly – the monastery and become a priest. In a talking head shot, Chiken asks him: “Back then, did you imagine that Japan would deteriorate like this? We need faith now”. And the whole film is infused with a Zen panentheism, driven by the idea that Buddha permeates all things, everyday’s small actions and every second of our life. The food we eat is medicine and knowledge, and Chicken is on a quest to cure Hiro’s allergies with food; allergies he thinks are caused by the progressive decay of the environment. Ryugyo too practices Buddha’s teachings through his daily manual work; he is on the front line, on a land now sadly transformed into a graveyard.
Project “Tenzo” started as a commission, a short promotional film for a Buddhist Temple, and in the course of action it turned – lucky us – into a 59-minute film. And the unusual length is not the only peculiarity of “Tenzo”; the film is in fact a seamless mix of documentary and fiction, interview and acting, a very original form of metacinema in which this esthetic format serves well the content delivery, but without loosing any of its own power or energy.
Watching “Tenzo”, the concept of fluidity springs in mind. Fluid is the shifting from real to fiction, without us realising (or caring); fluid is Tomita’s script (with Toranosuke Aizawa) and the hinges between the beautiful dialogues, from the everyday chit-chat to the poignant conversation with a wise nun. Fluid too is the light that bathes and defines the top-notch photography from Studio Ishi (Takuma Furuya, Masahiro Muoyami).
“Tenzo” is engaging and nurturing; a very mature work from a director with the spirit of a young explorer.