Ventured out to Japan Society to catch a screening of Poem, the third and final installment in director Akio Jissoji’s Buddhist Trilogy (newly digitally-remastered, courtesy of the fine folks at Arrow Video). Distributed by the Art Theater Guild, the film epitomizes arthouse cinema—for better and worse.
In these kinds of movies, style and substance tend to become indistinguishable; in this particular case, Jissoji is obsessed with juxtaposition: the interplay between light and shadow, sprawling wide shots intercut with extreme close-ups, prolonged silences interrupted by sudden loud noises, et cetera. This recurring motif even creeps into the story’s central theme, which revolves around (what else?) class conflict. Our protagonist, the faithful servant of a wealthy family with ancestry dating back to the Warring States period, personifies routine and discipline; visually, he’s defined by symmetrical compositions and repetitive montages edited to the rhythm of ticking clocks, the squeak of washcloths scrubbing wooden floors, and the crunch of sandals sinking into gravel. His employers, on the other hand, are nihilistic, amoral, and hypocritical—and are therefore associated with unbalanced framing, disorienting camerawork, and deliberate discontinuity. As the (admittedly minimalistic) plot progresses, our hapless hero’s inflexible code of honor (derived from bushido, naturally) is ruthlessly exploited by his callous superiors: the lady of the house, for example, coerces him into a sexual affair (her husband, for his part, isn’t bothered by her infidelity—as long as it doesn’t cause a scandal); his master’s lackadaisical younger brother, meanwhile, threatens to fire him unless he literally starves himself—an order that he dutifully obeys, with obvious consequences. Indeed, in all but its contemporary setting, Poem closely resembles a traditional “cruel jidaigeki,” sharing more in common with Harakiri, Sword of the Beast, and Eleven Samurai than it does with most other Japanese New Wave productions.
Structurally, Poem is an almost interminable slow burn (heck, the pace is practically inert, especially as the narrative nears its predictably downbeat conclusion), and your opinion on the characters’ frequent philosophical musings will depend predominantly on your own social and political preconceptions. Aesthetically, however, it’s a five-star full-course dinner—and, despite its flaws, I savored every single bite of it.