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Review: Children of the Great Buddha

[The following review contains MINOR SPOILERS; YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!]



The opening scenes of Children of the Great Buddha don’t really give the impression that it will be a particularly emotional cinematic experience. The first several minutes consist almost entirely of expository dialogue: the young protagonist guides groups of tourists through the temples and shrines of Nara Prefecture, reciting memorized historical facts and legends pertaining to the various relics and artifacts encountered in a dispassionate monotone. At times, it feels more like a documentary than a narrative feature—informative, but not terribly dramatic.


As in much of Hiroshi Shimizu’s best work, however, a compelling conflict resides just beneath the surface of the seemingly simple story, emerging gradually before striking at the viewer’s heartstrings with devastating abruptness. Early on, for example, our hero is filling out a postcard for mail-order binoculars. “What will you put down for an address?” asks an acquaintance with a lack of malice that doesn’t make the query any less insensitive; “You don’t have a home.” Later, a conversation with a vacationing World War II veteran reduces the orphaned boy to tears; his own father is still missing following Japan’s recent surrender, and the cruel reminder that he probably numbers among the countless soldiers killed in action immediately (albeit briefly) shatters his façade of cool, composed professionalism, unleashing the grief that he’d previously repressed. Even the character’s childish daydreams are surprisingly poignant: he longs to one day nap in the open palm of a colossal Buddha statue—a powerful metaphor, symbolizing his subconscious desire to be nurtured, protected, and loved unconditionally.



Ultimately, though, these loosely structured episodes aren’t nearly as thematically significant as the spiritual and religious icons around which they unfold. The sculptures, towering pagodas, torii gates, and stone lanterns that populate the setting are magnificently photographed, framed from low, tight angles that emphasize their awe-inspiring stature (further magnified by slow, fluid camera movements). I’ll admit that I initially had my reservations about Children of the Great Buddha’s frequent (and excessively lengthy) educational interludes—after all, they tend to disrupt the rhythm of the otherwise lean and elegant plot—but Shimizu’s exquisite craftsmanship eventually won me over; I now consider them to be some of the finest sequences in his oeuvre (comparable to Ornamental Hairpin’s gorgeous ending montage, which remains a personal favorite of mine). For sheer spectacle alone, the film deserves to be ranked alongside the director’s greatest stylistic triumphs.

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