The Buddhist Trilogy

Discuss DVDs and Blu-rays released from Arrow and the films on them.

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domino harvey
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The Buddhist Trilogy

#1 Post by domino harvey » Fri Mar 09, 2018 8:45 am

Akio Jissôji created a rich and diverse body of work during his five decades in Japan s film and television industries. For some, he is best-known for his science-fiction: the 1960s TV series Ultraman and 1998 s box-office success Tokyo: The Last Megalopolis. For others, it is his 1990s adaptations of horror and mystery novelist Edogawa Rampo, such as Watcher in the Attic and Murder on D Street. And then there are his New Wave films for the Art Theatre Guild, three of which This Transient Life, Mandara and Poem, forming The Buddhist Trilogy are collected here.

Winner of the Golden Leopard award at the 1970 Locarno Film Festival, This Transient Life is among the Art Theatre Guild s most successful and most controversial productions. The film concerns a brother and sister from a rich family who defy the expectations placed on them: he has little interest in further education or his father s business, instead obsessing over Buddhist statues; she continually refuses a string of suitors and the prospect of marriage. Their closeness, and isolation, gives way to an incestuous relationship which, in turn, breeds disaster.

Mandara, Jissôji s first colour feature, maintained the controversial subject matter, focussing on a cult who recruit through rape and hope to achieve true ecstasy through sexual release. Shot, as with all of Jissôji s Art Theatre Guild works, in a radically stylised manner, the film sits somewhere between the pinku genre and the fiercely experimental approach of his Japanese New Wave contemporaries.

The final entry in the trilogy, Poem, returns to black and white and is centred on the austere existence of a young houseboy who becomes helplessly embroiled in the schemes of two brothers. Written by Toshirô Ishidô (screenwriter of Nagisa Ôshima s The Sun s Burial and Shôhei Imamura s Black Rain), who also penned This Transient Life and Mandala, Poem continues the trilogy s exploration of faith in a post-industrial world.

LIMITED EDITION CONTENTS

High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) presentations of This Transient Life, Mandara and Poem
Original uncompressed LPCM mono 1.0 audio on all three films
Newly translated optional English subtitles
Introductions to all three films by David Desser, author of Eros Plus Massacre: An Introduction to the Japanese New Wave
Scene-select commentaries on all three films by Desser
Theatrical trailer for Mandara
Theatrical trailer for Poem
Limited edition packaging, fully illustrated by maarko phntm
Illustrated 80-page perfect-bound collector s book featuring new writings on the film by Anton Bitel and Tom Mes

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Re: The Buddhist Trilogy

#2 Post by Big Ben » Fri Mar 09, 2018 10:17 am

Ah it appears my just recently posted claim that it sounded like Pinku Eiga in another thread was accurate. I wish I had seen this thread first. Woops! Incest was of course a recurrent theme in some of the Japanese New Wave films and was used to deride the familial structure in Japan (Where this line of reasoning comes in I'm not entirely sure.). The other films...I just don't know. I can't fathom a film like Mandara being made today.

I am familiar with the the man who wrote Poem though, Toshirô Ishidô. One of the films mentioned in the description that he wrote, The Sun's Burial is a film about people living in destitute poverty in societies margins. Obviously a left wing film because of who it was made by so if you're pondering what political perspective these films will take there's your answer. Whether they're still relevant or if they ever were however remains to be seen.

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Re: The Buddhist Trilogy

#3 Post by swo17 » Fri Mar 09, 2018 11:04 am

This is every bit as huge as the Yoshida set.

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Re: The Buddhist Trilogy

#4 Post by Ribs » Fri Mar 09, 2018 11:10 am

Its titling on the cover is a pretty clear echo of the other set. This should be tremendous, like that set before it, still comfortably the best thing Arrow's put out (for my money, anyway). Does Desser discuss these films in his book, or are these too late to be covered? (I recall he generally felt the New Wave and the scope of the book lasted from almost exactly 1960-70, but there were a few exceptions)

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Re: The Buddhist Trilogy

#5 Post by ermylaw » Fri Mar 09, 2018 11:11 am

I don't recall these films being mentioned in Desser's book, but I could definitely be wrong. It's been a couple years since I read it.

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Re: The Buddhist Trilogy

#6 Post by dda1996a » Fri Mar 09, 2018 11:15 am

I think it's about time I get the book. I'll never say no to any ATG film. Love my Yoshida set

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Re: The Buddhist Trilogy

#7 Post by What A Disgrace » Fri Mar 09, 2018 12:03 pm

I'm hoping the gap between this and the next ATG boxed set isn't as large as between the Yoshida set and this.

I imagine Shuji Terayama is a strong candidate for a third box, with a convenient (and with precedence) three features at ATG (not counting the longer cut of Emperor Tomato Ketchup), and though it'd be UK only due to obvious rights disagreements, Nagisa Oshima made five features for ATG, so he's ripe for a big boxed set.

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Re: The Buddhist Trilogy

#8 Post by dda1996a » Fri Mar 09, 2018 12:08 pm

Honestly that would be a dream. I'm a bit hit and miss with Terayama's shorts but I've longed to see his full length films for ages. What are other worth ATG films? (aside from Imamura and Funeral Parade)

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Re: The Buddhist Trilogy

#9 Post by yoshimori » Fri Mar 09, 2018 12:14 pm

swo17 wrote:This is every bit as huge as the Yoshida set.
For me, even more exciting. Surely the most important release of the year.

That said, the "trilogy" thing is silly. There are four brilliant, thematically linked Jissoji films between 1970 and 1974, and the best (by a smidgen) is the one that's not included here, Asaki yumemishi [A Faint Dream].

Here's a short, no-doubt-spoiler-ridden introduction to all four works culled from the Directory of World Cinema: Japan. Vol. 3.
SpoilerShow
Though the media-, genre-, and format-roaming of his sprawling opus may suggest a broad eclecticism, or even a disregard for personal creative engagement, Akio Jissoji’s works evidence underlying aesthetic and philosophical pursuits that persist throughout his career, regardless of dramatic discontinuities in the works’ cultural prestige, popular standing, budget, or political engagement. Known mostly for his involvement in the popular Ultraman franchise and for his adaptations of de Sade’s Justine, or Prosperities of Vice (Akutoku no sakae,1988) and of Edogawa Ranpo’s horror stories Watcher in the Attic (Yaneura no sanposha, 1993), Murder on D Street (D-Zaka no satsujin jiken, 1998), and “Mirror Hell” (“Kagami jigoku”, his contribution to the 2005 Rampo Noir anthology), Jissoji managed to encapsulate a career’s worth of highly personal reflections within the span of four brilliant but little-known feature films directed back to back between 1970 and 1974. This tetralogy – comprised of the so-called “Buddhist trilogy” of This Transient Life (Mujo, 1970), Mandara (1971), and Poem (Uta, 1972), together with the thematically and stylistically kindred A Faint Dream (Asaki yumemishi, 1974), all produced by the Art Theater Guild – reveals an auteur’s preoccupations with matters both quintessentially Japanese and universal in scope and thus may be a useful starting point for an understanding of this regrettably underrated filmmaker.

Critics tend to group the first three ATG films and ignore the fourth, viewing that trilogy as implying a critique of modern capitalist Japan. To be sure, Jissoji’s first three features, produced at a time when social upheaval was not only reflected but amplified in the films of other, openly political, Japanese filmmakers like Oshima, Yoshida, and Wakamatsu, share key traits with those films – notably the unflinching analysis of middle-class alienation and the pervasive use of erotic imagery. But such similarities constitute a kind of environmental “white noise” in Jissoji’s early 70s features, so that to focus on them is to overlook the director’s specific creative vision, a vision that transcends social and political contingencies. When one considers A Faint Dream as part of a greater tetralogy, Jissoji’s explorations take on a broader scope, so that his criticism of contemporary materialism becomes only a facet of a wider dissatisfaction with materialism’s intrinsic inability to address a larger problem, the problem of impermanence. The response to the flaws of capitalism cannot be, according to these films, a rush to embrace another form of materialist world-view, be it Marxism or Sartrean existentialism, since both are rooted in historical and ideological contingencies that are just as transitory. Instead, Jissoji’s work suggests, the only response to impermanence may be a commitment to the pursuit of form even in the absence of content or function.

While some of Jissoji’s stylistics echo Antonioni’s estranged landscapes and Robbe-Grillet’s objectified modernity, none of his characters exhibits the malaise of Euro-existentialism that pervades the work of those filmmakers, and his observations and insights never reach the threshold of political engagement that was common among existentialist thinkers in the West. Instead, Jissoji seems preoccupied with the ephemerality of the material world – indeed, the Japanese title of his first feature, Mujo, means, literally, “impermanence” – and with its significance in shaping the human condition. Trapped in their Buddhist ethos, Jissoji’s characters, regardless of historical setting, social station, or personality traits, share the same keen awareness of history’s transitory nature, the differences in their material conditions defining their coping strategies. In the tetralogy’s narratively diverse films, Jissoji presents a pageant of characters who struggle to lend meaning to existence in ways that range from the timid and introspective to the abusive and blatantly antisocial.

In This Transient Life, impermanence frees Masao, a young man who lives on his wealthy family’s lakeside estate, to pursue the fulfillment of any desire without regard for conventional morality. Not only does Masao forego university life and brazenly reject his father’s cushy job offer, but he seduces his sister, Yuri, and fathers a child with her. When the more tradition-minded Yuri worries that their mother may be onto them, Masao advises her to marry Iwashita, a habitual suitor, to deflect suspicion. Masao blithely argues, when his devoted sister is horrified that he would be willing to let her have sex with another man, that she should be “above all that”. And when Yuri, still trapped in conventional notions of doomed love, suggests that they double-suicide to avoid the shame of discovery, Masao rejects even death as meaningless, thus prolonging his life and its perpetual pursuit of personal freedom – a freedom that includes sex with prostitutes; a threesome with his aging mentor (a celebrated sculptor who’s carving a Kannon for a nearby temple) and his young wife; and, in the name of impermanence, abdication of any sense of responsibility toward his and his sibling’s child. “Children are” after all, he claims, “a dream of adults; and a dream is only a dream.”

In Mandara, one principal, Shinichi, a recent dropout of the student revolutionary movement, joins an agrarian cult for whose adherents religious ecstasy links eroticism and the transcendence of history. For him, that transcendence is defined not in traditional terms (as reincarnation or nirvana) but as a regression – not just a metaphorical one, and not simply a regression to an earlier time in his life, but a regression to a time before his own birth. Mandara, whose title evokes the definitive aesthetic illustration of impermanence – an art form Buddhist monks meticulously fashion only to destroy once it’s completed – and whose storyline blends references to the recent and more remote pasts (1960s student radicalism and the 1871 Paris Commune) with settings and situations that imply some kind of dystopian near future or alternate present, articulates a notion of history as contingent and ultimately irrelevant. Jissoji’s portraits of the bizarre cult (members engage in video voyeurism, rape games, and near-nude wrestling matches with invisible gods) and absurd student revolutionary cells (the bungling “Unity and Solidarity” group seems more concerned with chastising the “Dadaists” than with any direct political action) highlight the failure of social responses in the face of impermanence. The only potentially viable solutions to that dilemma, he seems to indicate, are personal.

In Poem, Jun, the unwitting bastard son of the mega-rich Moriyama, a small part of whose vast estate Jun is charged with keeping up, responds to the rootlessness of his existence by embracing form over content in every aspect of life. The young man obsessively follows daily rituals, practices calligraphy, and meticulously traces the patterns on the gravestones at a local cemetery. He fashions himself not just as a guardian of tradition – he insists, for example, that the two legitimate Moriyama brothers, a floundering lawyer and a cynical playboy, should not sell their increasingly senile father’s land, lest its ancient forest be destroyed – but as a keeper of form when no one else seems concerned with it. Though he acknowledges the identity crisis in Japanese society circa 1970 – as one brother quips, there is nothing in Japan worth defending anymore – Jun insists that that crisis is all the more reason to diligently preserve life’s highly ritualized forms until some satisfactory new content may fill them. Though Jun’s response to the problem of impermanence is diametrically opposed to Masao’s, Jissoji treats it with equivalent gravity. As for the brothers, they too seem acutely aware of the futility of their actions, but their reactions to that futility are more practical, more instinct-driven, than Masao’s or Jun’s. They conduct rather ordinary if spendthrift lives, their only aim, to exhaust their father’s assets before they die, their only notable indulgence to the temptations of formality, an interest in erotica.

That Jissoji’s ideas about impermanence and its implications are not intrinsically bound to the historical or political contingencies of his own time is made clear by the 13th-century setting of A Faint Dream. Despite the centuries-wide chasm separating them from Masao, Jun, and Shinichi, Jissoji’s fourth feature’s characters are confronted with the same cognitive dissonance, caught between the rarefied rituals of the court and the experiential quality of their otherwise futile lives. The dreamlike film – it may take several viewings to concretize plot points and even to identify characters positively – fixes on the beautiful Shijo, Gosho’s favorite mistress. Shijo gradually becomes disillusioned with life at court after officials wrest her newborn daughter from her and shuttle her between the various “protectors” the former king arranges for her. Shijo’s adventures bring her into contact with a group of charismatic Prayer Dancers whose frenzied chanting is the antithesis of the Tendei and Shingo schools of Buddhism practiced among the aristocracy. At a turning point late in the film, the former royal courtesan now nun happens upon a common prostitute who, though attracted to the Dancers’ promise of heaven to anyone (“even women, even whores”) who ceaselessly prays to Amitabha Buddha, nevertheless admits she enjoys her job too much to give it up. This encounter leads Shijo to the realization that she’s been living “in a fog” and prompts her to wonder whether her own past may be but a faint dream.

Though peppered with irony, exaggeration, and even moments of slapstick, Jissoji’s films take all his characters’ responses to the problem of impermanence, no matter how obsessive those characters may be, no matter how extreme, how at odds with one another their reponses, seriously. Consequently, the tetralogy feels like research rather than assertion, investigation rather than revelation of a discovery. The filmmaker, unlike his characters, is not articulating a case or advocating a position in the face of the problem of impermanence so much as following all lines of thought through to their conclusions, even if each is found inadequate. At the same time, Jissoji’s first four films represent a kind of visual research. While Masao apprentices with a master sculptor, Jun practices his calligraphy, and Shijo perfects her watercolors, Jissoji explores film form, creating a strikingly derealized aesthetic that parallels the impermanence his characters experience. The director’s technical mastery of visual design and penchant for elaborate camerawork underscore the emotional distance between the audience and the characters and storyline. Compositions emphasize graphic rather than human elements; moving cameras often deliberately ignore characters’ actions; extreme wide and extreme long lenses distort spatial relations; and editing (of both picture and sound) frequently privileges disorientation over continuity. Since the films are unified visually more than they are philosophically, one is tempted to compare their director to Jun, someone who trades in regimen, style, form, even if it’s unclear whether meaning will eventually follow. Jissoji, like Jun, creates form without positing a univocal meaning. He, too, is a keeper of form.
Last edited by yoshimori on Fri Mar 09, 2018 2:17 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: The Buddhist Trilogy

#10 Post by Jean-Luc Garbo » Fri Mar 09, 2018 12:47 pm

dda1996a wrote:I think it's about time I get the book.
Desser's book is absolutely required reading. It covers everything from the contextual politics to why so many of the films were shot in 2.35. Just the information on Oshima and Yoshida was a big help to me. But the analysis is solid so it's not just a film history text. I was really impressed how Desser's intros on the Yoshida set made quite a bit of rich info concise. Cos as the commentary made clear there's a lot going on! But aside from doing a Tag Gallagher video piece he really rolled with it. Big props to Arrow for including him. And thank god for this announcement cos I'd never heard of these films til now and ATG is my thing too.

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Re: The Buddhist Trilogy

#11 Post by tenia » Fri Mar 09, 2018 1:04 pm

Which Desser's book is it exactly ? Eros Plus Massacre ?

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Re: The Buddhist Trilogy

#12 Post by dda1996a » Fri Mar 09, 2018 1:10 pm

Yes, Eros Plus Massacre : Introduction to Japanese New Wave Cinema

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Re: The Buddhist Trilogy

#13 Post by yoshimori » Fri Mar 09, 2018 2:23 pm

The Japanese seem to understand that there are four films in this cycle, not just three, as the Jissoji blu-ray box out there, like the DVD one before it, contains Asaki yumemishi [Faint Dream] along with the other three.

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Re: The Buddhist Trilogy

#14 Post by yoshimori » Fri Mar 09, 2018 2:33 pm

ermylaw wrote:I don't recall these films being mentioned in Desser's book, but I could definitely be wrong. It's been a couple years since I read it.
No reference to Jissoji in the book that I recall. A recollection seemingly confirmed by the lack of reference to JIssoji in the pretty comprehensive index. A major omission, iyam.

I'm obviously very excited by this release and recommend it to everyone with the slightest interest in Japanese cinema, art cinema, or existentialist philosophy. These films blow away anything Oshima or Terayama, both of whom I love, did in that period. The set contains what for me is one of the 10 best films in the history of Japanese cinema.

Too bad it's also a blown opportunity to include an even better, more austere, more experimental, visually unparalleled film from the same director, from the same period, with the same themes, and I'd guess as easily available to the licensers as the other three films.

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Re: The Buddhist Trilogy

#15 Post by swo17 » Fri Mar 09, 2018 2:53 pm

Presumably it would be on the table if this sells well.

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Re: The Buddhist Trilogy

#16 Post by yoshimori » Fri Mar 09, 2018 3:16 pm

dda1996a wrote:What are other worth ATG films? (aside from Imamura and Funeral Parade)
ATG filmography

My favorites, aside from the four Jissojis, the Oshimas, Mastumotos, and Terayamas, are Hani's Inferno of First Love (68), Shinoda's bizarre (Jissoji-esque?) Himiko (74), and, one of the last ATG films, Morita's Family Game (83). I've seen 34 of the 71 titles listed there, and every one of them was at least "of interest".

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Re: The Buddhist Trilogy

#17 Post by dda1996a » Fri Mar 09, 2018 3:24 pm

Sadly half of them aren't even available on back channels.

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Re: The Buddhist Trilogy

#18 Post by zedz » Fri Mar 09, 2018 5:49 pm

Release news of the year so far, and it’s hard to imagine anything outdoing it.

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Re: The Buddhist Trilogy

#19 Post by kindaikun » Fri Mar 09, 2018 6:47 pm

Very excited about this, I've been asking for more ATG releases for ages. Involving Desser in this one is interesting as he apparently wasn't covered in Desser's book, hopefully he'll have lots of fresh information to provide. I also hope they have the opportunity to speak to Tony Raynes for an interview or something as I always find his input valuable.

As for future possible ATG releases, Jissōji aside, I'd very much like to see Hani's Inferno of First Love (Hatsukoi: Jigokuhen) released, as well as Shinoda's Himiko and Ikeda's Mermaid Legend (Ningyo Densetsu, 1984). Obviously films from the more famous directors (Ōshima, Shinoda, Wakamatsu, Terayama, Shindō Kaneto etc.) would be welcome too and would, presumably, sell quite well based on name recognition alone.

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Re: The Buddhist Trilogy

#20 Post by L.A. » Fri Mar 09, 2018 6:49 pm

Count me in, will get this set. :)

Tokyo: The Last Megalopolis sounds interesting (I understand it is from 1988, not 1998). Is there possibly an English-friendly DVD or Blu-ray available?

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Re: The Buddhist Trilogy

#21 Post by colinr0380 » Fri Mar 09, 2018 7:39 pm

yoshimori wrote:My favorites, aside from the four Jissojis, the Oshimas, Mastumotos, and Terayamas, are Hani's Inferno of First Love (68), Shinoda's bizarre (Jissoji-esque?) Himiko (74), and, one of the last ATG films, Morita's Family Game (83). I've seen 34 of the 71 titles listed there, and every one of them was at least "of interest".
By the way, though Oshima does not mention ATG by name during the piece, a lot of those titles get namechecked in his 100 Years of Japanese Cinema piece for the BFI which is about to turn up as an extra on their release of An Actor's Revenge.
L.A. wrote:Tokyo: The Last Megalopolis sounds interesting (I understand it is from 1988, not 1998). Is there possibly an English-friendly DVD or Blu-ray available?
Yes, it was definitely made in 1988.

The film was available through ADV Films on DVD in the US but that was a number of years ago and that company has since folded. I'm not sure if anyone has picked the film up for Western distribution since, but it apparently got a Blu-ray edition in Japan a couple of years ago. I remember Manga Video put the film out in the UK on VHS back in the 1990s, but I am not sure if they ever revisited it for the DVD era, let alone Blu-ray.

I have not yet had the opportunity to see the live action version but a couple of years after Tokyo: The Last Megalopolis was made in 1988 the same source material was also adapted into a 4 part OVA anime called Doomed Megalopolis which is certainly quite an experience (I suspect that it is also one of the reasons that the live action film did not receive too much attention in the UK, as the anime adaptation got much more traction here and sort of overwhelmed it. Channel 4 even broadcast Doomed Megalopolis in 1995! I remember it being quite the talking point amongst my friends in the school cafeteria for days after each episode aired!). The anime at least plays like a slightly tamer (though these things are relative) version of a story in a similar vein to the notorious Urotsukidoji series (though the heroine giving birth to a giant maggot through her mouth seems more primarily inspired by Poltergeist II!), and quite a lot of the action is based around the 1923 Great Kanto earthquake, layering an occult, apocalyptic context on top of a historical natural disaster.

Apparently (at least according to Wikipedia) both Tokyo: The Last Megalopolis and Doomed Megalopolis are only adapting the first four parts of a twelve volume novel, so they both end rather inconclusively, though it seems that the live action film got a sequel the following year that adapted the eleventh book of the series, which at least provided a little bit of closure.

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Re: The Buddhist Trilogy

#22 Post by yoshimori » Fri Mar 09, 2018 9:38 pm

> Ultraman ... Tokyo: The Last Megalopolis

I'm sure most of y'all know this, but these projects (Ultraman, Last Megalopolis) could easily be mistaken for having been made by someone who would have nothing to do with the guy who made the movies in the Arrow box and vice versa. Not sure how Jissoji "evolved" from the one place to the other, but ...

He also continued to make (let's be nice and call them) "experimental" films into the 80s and 90s (Arietta, Nami no Bon, La valse) as well as some beautiful but in the end not particularly satisfying Edogawa Rampo adaptations ... but nothing like his four ATG films.

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Re: The Buddhist Trilogy

#23 Post by mrspmrsa » Fri Mar 09, 2018 10:27 pm

Wonderful news. The fourth film would be nice, but equally exciting would be his earlier (long) short
'When Twilight Draws Near'

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt3416312/?ref_=nm_flmg_dr_31" onclick="window.open(this.href);return false;

which has an interesting history. Written by Oshima, and you can just imagine him directing it. A delicious, vicious little film.

I do hope Arrow has secured the rights to Terayama Shuji's films. I contributed to the Svankmajer Insects film crowdfunding, and I think a Terayama deluxe edition with perks (film posters, poetry, shorts, soundtracks etc) would capture the imagination of many.

Looking forward to the Buddhist Trilogy, and perhaps more ATG-related films from Arrow.

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Re: The Buddhist Trilogy

#24 Post by joshua » Sat Mar 10, 2018 12:58 am

I've seen Poem listed under two different running times- 119 min and 136 min. Does anyone know anything about this?

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Re: The Buddhist Trilogy

#25 Post by swo17 » Sat Mar 10, 2018 1:26 am

I believe there are two cuts and that the Japanese Blu-ray includes both.

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