Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Looking for Akio Jissoji: The Early Films With the Art Theatre Guild

Avid film fans will always confront the same dilemma at one point or another: many of the films we wish to see are not readily available. This happens far more times than necessary when searching for foreign cinema, and it is an axiom with Asian cinema. By far, the director whose work I wish to see most is Akio Jissoji (1937 - 2006). Jissoji would probably be completely unknown in the West, if it were not for his direction of the extremely popular Ultraman series.

I first became aware of Akio Jissoji through Roland Domenig's review of his first feature film, This Transient Life. Domenig likened this film to the work of Robert Bresson and Carl Theodor Dreyer. The reviewer constructed these comparisons from a religious context because Buddhism is a major theme in This Transient Life. Jissoji applies the use of perpetually moving camera to convey the Buddhist idea of transience. The film did acheive some international recognition when it won the Golden Leopard at the Locarno International Film Festival. It also became successful in Japan in the cinemas owned by the Art Theatre Guild. Consequently, Akio Jissoji joined the ranks of Kazuo Kuroki and Shuji Terayama, and the three became the most popular directors in the Art Theatre Guild in the 1970s.

Akio Jissoji went on to direct three more films with the Art Theatre Guild: Mandara (Mandala, 1971), Uta (Poem, 1972), and Asaki Yumemishi (Lived in a Dream, Life of a Court Lady, It Was a Faint Dream, 1974). Unfortunately, there are no professional reviews of these three films, albeit a reader review on the IMDB of Mandala. There is very little information available on his last two films with the ATG. According to the above-mentioned review by Domenig, Poem contains religious and philosophical themes, and the BFI database page describes Life of a Court Lady as a Kamakura-period piece with religious themes.

Although this filmmaker has been forgotten in the West, there is some hope for those who are interested. Pioneer and Geneon have released Region 2 DVDs for most of his films, but as with many Japanese releases there are no English subtitles. Because of Jissoji's recent death, there have been eulogies written on certain science fictions websites, but these are mainly concerned with his work on Ultraman. Possibly, one day we will read about a Jissoji retrospective occuring somewhere outside of Japan. Japanese new wave cinema hasn't received much attention internationally, but recently there have been a few sparks of hope. Yoshishige "Kiju" Yoshida was honored with a complete retrospective at the 27th Sao Paulo International Film Festival in 2003. Earlier this year, the Febio Film Festival in Prague featured several Nuberu Bagu films including Kazuo Kuroki's Preparation for the Festival. It may take a long time, but I feel that Jissoji and his contemporaries will receive the appreciation that they deserve.

Here is a link to find some beautiful screenshots from his early films.


JCS said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ronna said...

You write very well.

edo said...

Asaki yumemishi (1974) dir. by Akia Jissoji, is my favourite film of a lifetime of cinemania...
I saw it at the Edinburgh Film Festival about 1985 and never forgot it. When videos and DVD's began to be available, I have hunted and hunted for Diary of a Court Lady, but never found it.

Not sure of the protocol of getting in touch... hope you can find me through my signing up as a gmail user.

Like your blog,

Edie Irwin