Zipangu Fest Review: KanZeOn (2011)

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“KanZeOn”, opening the Japanese Zipangu Festival in London on Friday 18th November, is less a documentary and more a spiritual experience. Its title coming from an alternative reading of the Japanese name for the Bodhisattva of Compassion, Kannon, (which literally translates ‘as ‘she who hears the cries of the world’), the film is an exploration of sound and its links with and role in Japanese Buddhism. Directed by Neil Cantwell and Tim Grabham, the British production is indeed hard to pin down or categorise, though in the best possible way, and has enjoyed a successful run at a variety of international festivals.

Shot in and around Kyushu, the 87 minute film is structured as a series of chapters or incantations, and revolves mainly around three fascinating figures and musicians – Akinobu Tatsumi, a young Buddhist priest who takes care of a temple near Kumamoto City and spends his spare time as a rap DJ, Eri Fujii, a woman who has spent her life mastering an ancient Chinese bamboo wind instrument called a sho, and Noh theatre and kotsuzumi drummer Akihiro Iitomi, who also happens to be a huge fan of jazz.

KanZeOn (2011) Movie Image

Calling “KanZeOn” a documentary is to a large extent selling it and the ambitions of directors Neil Cantwell and Tim Grabham short. Although on the surface it does follow some of the conventions of the form, being constructed around interviews and featuring footage of its subjects as they go about their daily lives and activities, unlike more traditional documentaries, it never seems to be attempting to teach or to dig into the details of its subject. Instead, it presents itself as an exceptionally evocative affair, which is more about immersing the viewer in sound, and in doing so conveying a sense of shared experience. Through this, despite avoiding the usual kind of explanations and more rigid storytelling often seen in documentaries, the film does a great job of introducing the viewer to the mind set and ideas behind the faith, as well as its sounds.

At the same time, the film is extremely well made, and immaculately knitted together with a wonderful and natural rhythm and sense of flow. All meditative and philosophical aspects aside, it also succeeds on a more basic and cinematic level, with an intriguing method of tackling its rich subject matter that should make it engaging even to viewers with no immediate interest in Japanese Buddhism or traditional performing arts. By focusing on a number of different characters and locations, Cantwell and Grabham keep things moving at a good pace, and the film has enough variety to give an air of objectivity.

KanZeOn (2011) Movie Image

The film’s content is in itself worth the price of admission, offering a glimpse at some rarely seen rituals and temples, along with some gorgeous and atmospheric visuals. These range from the grand, encompassing crashing waterfalls, misty mountains and mysterious landscapes, through to the small scale and intimate, depicting raindrops, rustling leaves and insects. All such imagery is tied directly into the associated sounds it creates, helping to further create a captivating and thematically cohesive spiritual portrait. Unsurprisingly, the soundtrack and score, if they can be thought of as such, are simply amazing, and the film is every bit as strong aurally as it is visually, if not more so.

“KanZeOn” really is a unique and enchanting piece of cinema, a lyrical and powerful piece of film making that serves as a reminder of what the form is capable of. Reaching beyond its religious and performing arts subject matter, it emerges as a life enriching experience which lingers and echoes long after the credits have rolled.

Neil Cantwell, Tim Grabham (director)