The origins of a spiritual tradition are depicted with prerequisite solemnity and a pleasing veneer of arthouse showmanship in Nipponese period biopic “Zen.” Depicting the life of the feudal-era monk who brought Zen meditation from 13th-century China to create a Japanese tradition, the pic’s disciplined approach is complemented by its episodic but dramatically charged structure and a commanding perf by lead thesp Kantaro Nakamura. High-profile but limited January release garnered lackluster local B.O., but distrib Kadokawa plans to tour the pic around rural Japan for special interest groups. Internationally, some fests should seek enlightenment.
After a pre-titles prologue in which a mother instructs her boy to spend his life seeking paradise on Earth, young Buddhist monk Dogen (Nakamura) visits China in search of true Buddhism rather than the Dharma methods that dominate Kamakura-era Japan. After a couple of false starts — including a meeting with a government-compliant sect that looks like a sideswipe at modern groups playing ball with China — Dogen finds a worthy master in Juqing (Zheng Tianyong). Refining his grasp of Chinese meditation, Dogen returns at the 30-minute mark to Kyoto to establish his own Zen dojo.
Starting with only two acolytes, Dogen’s prizing of silent meditation above established Buddhist practice (reciting sutras, kowtowing to the shogun) gathers momentum, and his following multiplies. His disciples include a monk from the Dharma sect, Gikai (Jun Murakami); a prostitute, Orin (Yuki Uchida); and Chinese monk Jiwen (Tatsuya Fujiwara, doing double duty as Dogen’s childhood buddy Kugyo in flashback sequences), who rejoins Dogen after their shared master, Juqing, dies.
Also on hand is influential government magistrate Yoshishige Hatano (Masanobu Katsumura), who offers protection against the corrupt Hieizan monks, who take increasingly violent exception to the growing impact of Dogen’s radical Zen sect. A powerful contempo coda salutes the growth of Zen Buddhism throughout the world.
Writer-director Banmei Takahashi, who like many Japanese helmers established his credentials in Japan’s “pink film” (soft-core porno) industry, offers a well-paced and reverential script that manages to avoid sycophancy. Expert handling of inherently slow-moving material is neatly counterbalanced by a narrative that knows when to forgo unnecessary “chop wood, carry water” detail in favor of dramatic momentum.
Mystical sequences — such as the haunting of the shogun (Tatsuya Fujiwara) by vanquished foes, and metaphorical representations of meditation processes — are augmented by CGI and mostly avoid being jarring.
Handsome and warmly charismatic, kabuki theater actor and occasional tube thesp Nakamura looks comfortable on the bigscreen.
At screening caught — a press preview in Digibeta at a Tokyo temple, as part of a PR stunt for local media — widescreen lensing still impressed, with d.p. Noriyuki Mizuguchi capitalizing on the pic’s luscious outdoor settings. Commercial release was in 35mm. All other tech credits are nirvana.