You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘Suffering of Ninko’

Masato Tsujioka, Hideta Iwaishi, Miho Wakabayashi, Reina Yukara, Masamichi Hagiwara, Tomoko Harazaki, Qyoko Kudo. (Japanese dialogue)

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt6039294/

A monk from the Edo Period gets in touch with his inner pervert in “Suffering of Ninko,” a costumed soft-core curio that’s beyond weird even by Japanese standards. The partially crowd-funded debut by young writer-director Norihiro Iwatsukino merges live action with animation representing various styles of Japanese art in both beautiful and bawdy ways. As a pastiche of Japanese erotica with a dash of folkloric fantasy, it’s quite original, though due to budget constraints, the direction and performances in live-action scenes are pretty crude. Still, cheesy production values, a tongue-in-cheek attitude, and the seriously bizarre plot stand to make this a cult favorite at festivals large and small.

In addition to writing and directing, Iwatsukino multi-tasks as writer-director, producer, editor, animator, and visual effects supervisor. His arts-school background is evident in his resourceful culling of traditional Japanese art forms, from Buddhist mandala drawings to ukiyoe woodblock prints to shunga erotic drawings. For a tyro filmmaker, the seamlessness with which he mashes live action and animation shows considerable promise in directing more mainstream CGI-heavy fantasy down the road. He also borrows from “Hyakumonogatari,” a collection of ghost stories evolved from a parlor game, while mixing in ’70s sexploitation tropes, to the extent that the result hovers between spooky and kitsch.

With a portentous voice that comes across jarring when applied to such profane content, narrator Qyoko Kudo relates the woes of Ninko (Masato Tsujioka), a novice monk who begins his training at Enmeiji temple. Despite his sincere dedication to asceticism, he attracts unwanted attention without lifting a pinkie. When he begs for alms on the street, he’s mobbed by women. It’s not just the opposite sex who find themselves attracted to him either; the temple has plenty of horny gay monks flirting with him, too. Closeups of his admirers contorted with lust are crosscut with lurid ukiyoe portraits of “women in the water trade,” giving the scenes a striking tableau effect.

One day, Ninko encounters a girl wearing a Noh mask (Reina Yukara) in the forest. When she takes it off, the creepy result recalls Magritte’s surrealist blank faces. Yet, instead of running for his life, Ninko is flushed with an impulse he couldn’t comprehend and succumbs to sweaty, torrid hallucinations, animated with a trippy psychedelic style. He tries to escape his cursed predicament by becoming an itinerant pilgrim.

When he passes by Akatsuki village, he is entreated by the village chief to join forces with a ronin named Kanzo (Hideta Iwaishi) to combat Yama-onna (Miho Wakabayashi), a mountain goblin in crimson rags who seduces men in order to suck their male vitality dry. The filmmaker’s wacko taste is evident in the portrayal of Yama-onna, who looks like she’s modeling Comme de garçons’ fall collection, and the corpses of her victims, which are like wax figures.

The film’s theme of embracing one’s dark side, expressed through Kanzo’s confession of his hidden vice, is stunningly illustrated on Japanese shoji screens in ultra-violent “Kill Bill” style. Finally, the mystery of Ninko’s devastating desirability is solved during his climactic encounter with Yama-onna, making for an ending that’s both tantalizingly strange and blatantly nonsensical.

Iwatsukino’s animation of two-dimensional art is extraordinarily imaginative, and is especially apt when expressing Ninko’s twisted visons and hallucinations, as when Ninko sees root vegetables cut into round shapes and envisages them as burnished Buddhist icons. However, even factoring in the shoestring production budget, Iwatsukino’s direction leaves much to be desired. Not only does the narrative moves forward in a jumpy way, giving the impression of a succession of skits, but performances also rely too heavily on the same stony-faced expressions. DPs Shunichiro Yamamoto and Takayuki Okazaki just about scrape through when shooting temple interiors but their outdoor cinematography is a sloppily composed mess.

Popular on Variety

Film Review: 'Suffering of Ninko'

Reviewed at Vancouver Film Festival (Gateway), Oct 1, 2016. (Also in Busan Film Festival — Window on Asian Cinema.) Running time: 70 MIN. (Original title: "Ninko no junan")

Production: (Japan) Producers: Norihiro Iwatsukino, Katsuyuki Takemoto.

Crew: Director, writer: Norihiro Iwatsukino. Camera (color, HD): Shunichiro Yamamoto, Takayuki Okazaki. Editor, Norihiro Iwatsukino.

With: Masato Tsujioka, Hideta Iwaishi, Miho Wakabayashi, Reina Yukara, Masamichi Hagiwara, Tomoko Harazaki, Qyoko Kudo. (Japanese dialogue)

More Film

  • Lucy-Lost

    Cartoon Forum: 30th Anniversary, Little Giants and New Generations

    TOULOUSE, France –  Celebrating its 30th anniversary, Cartoon Forum wrapped Sept. 19 having showcased the ever-growing strength of European animation. 85 projects were pitched from 24 countries at the co-production forum platform that played host to north of 1,000 investors, distributors and producers – a record number. Falling on French-speaking Belgium – Wallonie-Bruxelles – whose [...]

  • Renee Zellweger Rufus Wainwright Sam Smith

    Renée Zellweger: Judy Garland Was 'My Childhood Hero'

    Awards buzz is building around Renée Zellweger for her performance as Judy Garland, emerging as a frontrunner in the Oscar race for best actress. But for her, the real prize was paying tribute to Garland, of whom she’s been a lifelong fan. “Nobody was prettier, nobody sang prettier…the adventures she had, [she was] my childhood [...]

  • Topic Studios

    Layoffs Hit Topic Studios as TV Division Relocates to West Coast (EXCLUSIVE)

    A small round of layoffs has hit Topic Studios this week in the television division, insiders familiar with the company told Variety. One of the insiders said three executives at the New York-based producer and distributor are out: senior vice president of scripted programming and Viacom alum Lisa Leingang, vice president of development Mona Panchal [...]

  • 'Downton Abbey' Music Gets 'Bigger, Better,

    As 'Downton Abbey' Hits the Silver Screen, the Music, Too, Gets 'Bigger, Better, Grander'

    When “Downton Abbey” fans hear that familiar strings-and-piano theme, a Pavlovian response ensues: Get to the television immediately, because you don’t want to miss a minute of the addictive Crawley family melodrama to follow. This week, with the “Downton Abbey” movie reaching theaters on Friday, fans can’t wait for their fix of Lady Mary and [...]

  • 45 Seconds of Laughter

    Film Review: '45 Seconds of Laughter'

    “Everyone is worth more than their worst act,” said Roman Catholic sister and anti-death penalty advocate Helen Prejean, and it’s with these words that “45 Seconds of Laughter” closes. It’s an apt sentiment on which to leave Tim Robbins’ sincerely felt documentary study of the therapeutic acting workshops run by his own theater company in [...]

  • Julie Andrews

    Julie Andrews Selected for AFI's Life Achievement Award

    The American Film Institute Board of Trustees has selected Julie Andrews as the recipient of the 48th AFI Life Achievement Award. The award will be presented to Andrews on April 25 in Los Angeles. The ceremony will be telecast on TNT. “Julie Andrews is practically perfect in every way,” said Kathleen Kennedy, chair of the [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content