“Abraxas” sports more than enough novelty just by allowing its hero the contradictions inherent in being a Buddhist monk by day and a punk rocker by night. Naoki Kato’s gently appealing seriocomedy treats mental illness and key Buddhist concepts, mostly involving mortality, with the same wry respect. Playing the fest circuit after its Sundance premiere, pic might gain modest offshore theatrical and disc exposure.
We first see protag Jonen (Suneohair) in an old Tokyo club-concert video in which he’s the berserk frontman of a thrash band — screaming, shirtless, writhing on the floor, crashing into fellow musicians and at one point simply stopping cold, as if no longer sure who he is or why he’s there. But that was years ago. Now his hair is shorn and his robes stay on, as Jonen has become a monk at a temple in the Fukushima prefecture. But he remains a troubled soul, as evidenced when his talk to a high school group starts out incoherently, then turns into a wild rant.
This incident sets local gossips into overdrive, worrying Jonen that perhaps he’s not cut out for this role, despite the encouragement of his temple master, Genshu (Kaoru Kobayashi), and the latter’s warmly good-humored wife, Asako (Manami Honjo). At home, Jonen is a stabilizing influence for his own spouse, Tae (a comically exasperated Rie Tomosaka), and their young son (Taku Yamaguchi, with whom Suneohair has delightful chemistry). But signs of his old erratic behaviors worry Tae, too; at one point, we learn that Jonen’s father once committed him to a mental hospital.
Jonen has an epiphany: What’s caused his recent unsettled state is a lack of music-making. Tae fears reopening that can of worms, but Asako and Genshu are enthusiastic, though Genshu privately frets when his junior monk decides he’ll stage a concert not at his old Tokyo haunts, but right here in the temple’s surrounding village.
Buildup to this event is dotted with a few nicely interwoven subplots, notably the ebbing health of the temple dog and the warning signs of depression exhibited by a local acquaintance of Jonen’s.
Despite a few improbabilities, the film’s low-key progress is ingratiating, and its unshowy presentation nonetheless manages to capture the natural beauty of the region that is the current locus of Japan’s post-earthquake/tsunami nuclear crisis. Adapting Buddhist monk Sokyu Genyu’s novel in his first professional feature, helmer/co-scenarist Kato demonstrates a sure touch with pacing, atmosphere and astutely cast actors.