Seeing someone suffer is rarely fun but this film all about a Buddhist priest who is cursed to be sexually irresistible to all around him is sure to amuse audiences.
Ninko (Masato Tsujioka) is a novice Buddhist monk living during the Edo period. He is based at Enmei-ji, a temple in the mountains. He is, in fact, a paragon of a monk, adhering to asceticism to learn his religion, dutifully cooking, cleaning, and praying every day. Despite his diligence he has a problem – Ninko attracts females. Lots of them. Handsome though he is, his popularity is truly astounding. When he travels to the local villages asking for alms a cry goes out, “Ninko’s come!” and he is mobbed by many fawning female fans forcing their way past the other monks so they can get their paws on Ninko.
From Ninko’s POV we see him swamped by a wave of beauties bounding in from the bathhouses and back alleys of the town and bucolic boundaries of the mountain’s forests and it looks great for anyone interested in the fairer sex. For a Buddhist monk, sex with women is a sin so it’s not so great for Ninko.
It isn’t just the ladies who have taken a liking to Ninko. It’s guys as well. Two monks have their sights set on bedding Ninko and this vexes him just as much. He blames himself for the lust and suffering he causes in others. “I need more training” and “I’m not virtuous enough” are two of his melancholy refrains. However, as the head of his temple notes – he has dark desires of his own which he must face and conquer if he wants to put others at ease. These dark desires attract a faceless demon who sets off a series of horrific visions that force Ninko to act.
Indeed, his demonic meeting leads to a quest which takes the film from bawdy comedy to dark horror as Ninko meets a ronin named Kanzo, the man-slayer, and takes on a demon hunting quest. Their mission is to kill Yama-onna, a sexy lady in red rags who lures men with her physical form into having sex during which she sucks their vitality out. The narrative brings Ninko face-to-face with this creature before neatly folding everything up in an ironic ending that suggests he needs to unleash his dark side. It all takes place in 70 minutes and feels even faster because of the editing, camerawork, and the creativity of first-time director Norihiro Niwatsukino.
Suffering of Ninko frequently flits from live-action to animation and draws upon traditional Japanese arts and crafts. Shoji screens, ukiyo-e, and Buddhist illustrations are some of the techniques used to deliver the story and atmosphere and it is done with ease because Niwatsukino, a director, writer, producer, special effects supervisor, and animator has worked in many mediums from film to animation. He brings visual flair here so that while the cinematography seen on screen might not be mind blowing, the film is still visually engaging. Ninko may not travel to too many different places (outdoor and indoor sets are limited on this indie – a forest and a village and a waterfall – but the landscape illustrations that depict Ninko’s travels are vividly drawn, clearly inspired by Utagawa Hiroshige’s works set along the Tokaido road. Animation is used quite often and it’s exciting at times such as a surreal sequences of slow motion chases led by lusty lasses in a village which is interspersed with interpretive dance that switches back and forth from live-action to animation. The faces of actors are beaming with lust before they are transformed into figures who look like they could have come straight from Kitagawa Utamaru’s “The Poem of the Pillow,” a steamy shunga. This merry dance back and forth between live-action and animation enhances the comedy.
That the film utilises animation, song and dance, and drama in such ways is just a few of the highlights of its genre breaking form that makes it so enjoyable to watch and even memorable at points. At a time when it seems that so many indie films are dedicated to depicting the emotional land sexual lives of people in contemporary Tokyo, having a title that dares to be different is a breath of fresh air. Audiences will want to know whether Ninko conquer his inner-demons and overcome the lust of others? I won’t reveal anything but the ending will take the audience by surprise as an epic animated battle erupts and our monk becomes a legend!
Suffering of Ninko is showing as part of the New York Asian Film Festival on Sunday July 9 at the Walter Reade Theater at 8:30pm. Tickets can be purchased from the Film Society of Lincoln Center website.