Continuing the theme of sound at the 2011 Zipangu Festival in London is “Abraxas”, a film with an intriguing protagonist in the form of a wild punk turned Buddhist monk, played by real life Japanese rocker Suneohair. Directed by Naoki Kato, who studied under Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Takeshi Kitano and whose 2007 debut “A Bao a Qu” played to success at various international festivals, the film was actually based upon a novel by real life monk Sokyu Genyu, and features cinematography by Ryuto Kondo and a stunning soundtrack by Yoshihide Otomo that plays an integral part in the proceedings.
The plot begins with Suneohair as former hellraising punk turned monk Jonen addressing a hall full of high school students to offer guidance on life and career choices, and ending up muttering and ranting nonsensically before causing a scene. Realising that he needs to re-evaluate his life and that he badly misses music and performing on stage, he gets the approval of the head monk at his temple (Kaoru Kobayashi, “Kamui – The Lone Ninja”) to hold a concert. This doesn’t sit too well with his long-suffering wife Tae (Rie Tomosaka, “A Boy and his Samurai”), who fears he will go back to his old ways of drinking and stripping on stage, or some of the locals who view him as an eccentric nuisance. Troubled by mood swings and tormented by the noise inside his head, Jonen goes about planning the event while trying to find harmony in his life.
“Abraxas” is another great example of the kind of eccentric, thoughtful drama which Japanese cinema is currently doing so well, mixing moments of leftfield comedy and weirdness with quietly philosophical concerns. Certainly, the film is both deeply personal and far-reaching, as it follows Jonen along his confused path to possible enlightenment, treating him as a likeable though lost soul earnestly trying to avoid self destruction by reconciling the better parts of his wild past with the realities of his present life. The plot itself works well, grounding the film’s themes and marking out an interesting character arc, as although the last act concert is always a given, its actual meaning and the nature of the resolution it brings is by no means conventional. In this respect the film can be seen as a melding of quirkiness and a genuine attempt to explore Buddhist themes, being frequently amusing and never getting too ponderous or overtly religious.
Sound unsurprisingly plays a vital part in the proceedings, with director Naoki Kato doing a stunning and thankfully never too grating job of allowing the viewer to experience the noises inside Jonen’s head. These, along with some clever use of the ambient sounds of the everyday world are combined with Yoshihide Otomo’s soundtrack in a way which really compliments the film’s themes and helps to give it a contemplative air alongside its comedy. This is tied in with some very cinematic visuals, and the film is visually quite gorgeous, with some picturesque use of local scenery in the small town setting and of wider landscapes during a soul-searching road trip by Jonen.
“Abraxas” is certainly a very accomplished film, and one which works on many levels. Although perhaps not wacky enough for mainstream success, it’s an entertaining, very effective and meditative piece, and one which is rewarding in both conventional narrative and spiritual terms, making it well worth seeking out.
Naoki Katô (director) / Naoki Katô, Dai Sakô (screenplay), Sôkyû Genyû (novel)
CAST: Manami Honjô