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Suffering of Ninko: Clash of Restraint and Libido

February 8, 2017 | By

Norihiro Niwatsukino’s bold attempt Suffering of Ninko looks into the inner self of a Buddhist Monk Ninko. This partially crowd-funded debut announces arrival of a talented filmmaker whose film did create interest among the critics wherever it was screened including the Busan International Film Festival. A Silhouette review by noted film critic and jury at several international film festivals – Manoj Barpujari.

Suffering of Ninko

Poster of the Japanese film ‘Suffering of Ninko’ by Norihiro Niwatsukino

Prologue: The ballroom floor of Haeundae Grand Hotel was full. It was the closing dinner party of the 21st Busan International Film Festival, on 16 October 2016 to be accurate. Among the glitterati of the film world, I was amazed to find a warm and unpretentious young lady from Japan. Her golden muga silk attire immediately caught my attention because the colour and gloss were much similar to the muga silk garment any Assamese lady would love to sport. She was Yukino Arimoto who enacted an important role in the debut feature of her director Norihiro Niwatsukino’s bold attempt Suffering of Ninko. The film caught the imagination of the aesthetically conscious mind and seemed to have gone well with the inquisitive eyes.

Distraction: Norihiro takes a magical journey of interpreting a folktale set in medieval Japan, a tale of a young Buddhist monk who falls in a peculiar situation of women getting attracted to him, virtually making it impossible for him to go to the village for alms. “They’re like animals. They just follow their desires,” another monk consoles him. This episode in his life was not portrayed in heavy dramaturgy, but in palpable comedy. Ninko, the young and devout monk apparently dislikes all the fetishism displayed by the village womenfolk – and it’s not just the opposite sex, a couple of gay monks in the monastery try to flirt with him and he dislikes it too.

Nevertheless, his character is not blown out of proportion, as he displays a humane attitude when he happens to meet a young lady all alone in the bamboo forest of the monastery. At first she (flamboyantly played by Yukino) draws his attention and Ninko’s gesture is not at all shying away from her half naked body that takes him by surprise. But what follows is an act of fear and escapism on the part of the disbelieving monk. The young lady makes a haunting appearance in his sub-conscious mind, justified by a blurred nudity as well. The duality of attachment of these two roles is scripted in recurrence of a folk form, a dancing young lady in a traditional mask. Her appearance itself suggests that it has been an obsessive illusion for Ninko. The dance form is a leaf taken out from a Latin American ballet titled Bolero (written by Joseph-Maurice Ravel). Originally the story of Bolero was that of a female dancer in a pub. At first the dancer did not attract the visitors in the pub, but as her dance became furious more and more eyes were drawn to her. Finally all the onlookers joined her in the dance. Thus ‘an audience attracted by the dancer’ in the ballet is adapted in the film, moulded as ‘women getting crazy about Ninko’.

Distractions of Ninko

Distractions of Ninko

Reverse deed: However Ninko’s tryst, albeit illusionary, with women is the eye-opener to a travesty of truth. It is like facing the question of who is right and what comes out of the monk’s self-realization at the end. With his master’s instruction, Ninko (played elegantly by Masato Tsujioka) goes to the mountains in self exile for reclaiming his faith in Buddhist commandments. For a devout monk, indulgence in sex in any form and courting a female is sin. He goes on a rigorous practice of Zen meditation amidst a secluded mountain range to clear his mind. But he still finds hard to set himself free from the recurring daydreams with explicit female shapes that haunt him; even when he takes bath in a lagoon by the side of the waterfalls, he is not spared from this. At that point he befriends a samurai (well played by Hideta Iwahashi) and, as destiny would have it, they pass by a village that undergoes a bizarre experience of its menfolk being seduced and sucked dry of their male vitality by a female goblin. As the villagers plead for the monk’s Buddhism and the samurai’s swordsmanship to combat and subdue the sorcery of the evil they call Yama-onna, they embark on a mission to get the village rid itself of the seductive and murderous spirit.

On a fateful encounter, Ninko turns into an overpowering male where it is just the opposite of what he has been going through in his quest for peace of mind. In the climax scene, the kind of illusory spell he undergoes seems to have worked just the opposite way. Earlier, he was haunted by a faceless, nipple-less female creature that can be explained as a consequence of sexual repression in men; but he becomes ferocious out of compulsion and desperation when he comes face to face with the seductress and made to have intercourse, and eventually his face turns demonic (in a mix of live action turning to woodblock drawing and animation) to arouse fear in the opposite sex. The unexpected twist to the plot leaves the film viewer curious with disquieting questions.

Content over form: Does the recourse to fable, folklore and religious doctrine make a film primordial? In talking terms the answer is a straight ‘No’. What makes an art old or modern is how it presents the archetype. Considering the structure of Suffering of Ninko it is a modern film. But then, leaving aside the form, if a film raises questions about or breaks the notions, then also it can be viewed as modern. Norihiro’s film is modern in the sense that apart from using cinematic vocabulary to an interesting level, it contributes to the diatribe on masculine sexuality in an unexpected and vilified way. Ninko appears as an innocent monk, but turns out to be a frightening object that can chase the guts out of a dreaded sucking spirit whose ultimate query was: “Are you a human?” It awakens the myth of the “Monstrous Ninko-bo” making the protagonist a necessary devil.

The film obviously adds to the rich discourses in Japanese cinema. Decades ago Rashomon caused quite a flutter by just raising questions about human nature: about memory, past, history, and even moral stance taken by the major characters in the film. Flashbacks could deceive, as they reflected a point of view, not the absolute truth in the Kurosawa classic. “Human beings are unable to be honest with themselves” Kurosawa opined. Rashomon made the viewers realize that men or women should suspect even what they think they have seen. Suffering of Ninko also has this insightful philosophy. It is best reflected in the Samurai’s sarcastic accusation that Ninko is a womanizer: “You don’t want women, but you can’t stop wanting.” The self-assertive monk’s prompt reply is: “I never broke Buddhist commandments”, as if his conviction is going to desert him. Ninko’s encounter with the seductress Yama-onna actually shattered a false male and moral pride to dust as he realized, “It’s not my fault!”

Ninko, the young and devout monk in the Japanese film 'Suffering of Ninko'

Ninko, the young and devout monk in the Japanese film ‘Suffering of Ninko’

Art forms: The film is a clever amalgamation of different art forms: first, the story is told by mixing live actions and woodblock animations and graphics based on works by a renowned 19th century Japanese painter; second, it is constructed with the help of a famous ballet of Spanish origin but arranged with Japanese instruments; third, the live actions are enacted in comic style and by using Noh masks and naked female charms as Ninko appears irresistible to all women and chased by mobs of them where lies an innocent eroticism; fourth, Buddhist Sutras and Mantras are used along with female voiceover to strengthen the fable base of medieval Japan as one’s dark side is metamorphosed into fleshy human beings and vice versa.

However a few fade-outs, and jump cuts in animated paintings etc, make the structure sometimes patchy. A dead body in the deserted village and the dead samurai in the forest under the spell of the female devil look like clay figures. Yet the partially crowd-funded debut announces arrival of a talented filmmaker who surprises by sheer audacity of his work-load. In addition to writing and directing, Norihiro himself is the producer, editor, animator and visual effects supervisor. His arts-school background is evident in the visual treats with traditional art forms, all being edited into a cohesive whole. Not only folklore, but he also borrowed from ghost stories of popular parlour game called Hyakumonogatari. And while editing he plays with every small technique available on the table, like employing split screen to show Ninko chased by a female mob and the lightened mood is brought to aesthetic pleasure by a dancing female. By all counts, Suffering of Ninko is a pleasure to watch.

Trailer of ‘Suffering of Ninko’ by Norihiro Niwatsukino

Suggested readings

Between the Times – A Rare Experience: Asa Jaoar Majhe Review
Absurdist Themes In The Virgin Spring
Chunhyang: An Artistic Splendor
Choosing Between Death and Death: Suicide in Kobayashi’s Seppuku

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Manoj Barpujari, a journalist based in Guwahati, received Swarna Kamal for the best film critic at the National Film Awards 2011. He wrote a chapter on cinema of Assam in Routledge Handbook of Indian Cinemas (London, 2013) and conducted a workshop on film criticism at the University of West Indies, St Augustine, Trinidad in 2012. He has written and edited twelve books including three titles on cinema. He is a member of FIPRESCI (international federation of film critics) and served at film festival juries in India and abroad several times.
All Posts of Manoj Barpujari

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