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Original Title:

Japan 2009


Banmei Takahashi

Kantaro Nakamura
Ryushin Tei
Jun Murakami
Yuki Uchida
Kengo Kora
Masanobu Katsumura
Tatsuya Fujiwara
Zheng Tianyong
Sho Aikawa
Takashi Sasano
Shun Sugata
Masahiko Nishimura
Kenichiro Yasui

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Story: In the 13th century the monk Dogen (Kantaro Nakamura) strives after the true Buddhist teaching which he can't find his his temple. He decides to travel to China where he is unsuccessful in his search at first, too. He eventually meets the monk Kugyo (Ryushin Tei) on his travels who introduces him to his teacher Ju-ching (Zheng Tianyong). From him Dogen learns the way of the Zen Buddhism until he reaches enlightenment after a few years and goes back to Japan with his new experience. There he first has a hard time to establish his new and only true way of Buddhism. However, his patience and wisdom makes him gather a steadily rising number of disciples around him. Dogen is also supported by Kugyo and the converted monk Ejo (Jun Murakami), so that Dogen can easily survive a few throwbacks. The local monk orders aren't happy about Dogen's new teaching and drive him off over and over again, but with the help of the nobleman Yoshishige Hatano (Masanobu Katsumura) the monk can finally build up a centre of Buddhist peace in Echizen from where he brings his teachings to such different individuals as the lady of easy virtue Orin (Yuki Uchida) or the regent Hojo Tokiyori (Tatsuya Fujiwara).

Review: A movie about Zen Buddhism really should be an ambitious work. The expectations on my part have thus been quite high. But what is "Zen" doing? It tries to depict the actual core of Zen Buddhism and by that puts us to shame for having those high expectations. That is because we learn that Buddhist teachings are about that you eat when you are hungry and sleep when you are tired. Or in the words of a master who is said to have told this a beggar: "I really would like to give you something, but in Zen Buddhism we actually don't have anything!" With such words students should lose their high expectations as well. Goal-orientated thinking should be put aside. Enlightenment isn't the goal, the strife for enlightenment is or rather, self-abandonment is standing in the focus. "Zen" is working exactly on this level. The film is a simple and tranquil work that seems to be free of any ambition and is thus even the more honest and ambitious. It may be difficult to understand that but it's also impossible to grasp Zen Buddhism through words. This shouldn't be the goal either, but the striving should be and director Banmei Takahashi shot his movie with exactly this in mind.

Despite the simplicity and easiness that is standing in the foreground "Zen" is rather complex at some points. Of course this even begins with the fact that the film is a biography of master Dogen, based on a novel by Tetsuo Otani who however took some small liberties when it comes to historical accurateness. Dogen brought Zen Buddhism to Japan. We accompany him on his path of life and travel through different stations of his life. Yet, the movie also takes its time to introduce different other characters as well who all add a certain aspect to the overall picture. Be it the bodily sin which Orin brings into the temple, which itself is the seed of lust but also love, or a regent gone insane who hopes to find healing with Dogen's help. Luckily, though, the movie isn't overloaden but focuses on what's essential. Therefore, the film also has the time to portray the everyday life of the priests and stay with them and their meditation sessions on several occasions. "Zen" also has the advantage on its side that the audience which is interested in the movie is expecting to have to put up with a slow pacing. Still, "Zen" isn't really sending the audience to sleep, but instead evokes serenity and peace in the viewer.

Naturally, there is a strong need for a good actor in order to convincingly bring the life of Dogen to the screen. Kantaro Nakamura is just the man needed. From the very beginning Dogen is radiating a certain kind of wisdom but in the course of his life he is still growing in mind, and this in a believable fashion, doesn't just remain an emotionless monk but in some scenes is also allowed to show some emotions in a decent way since he is sharing everything with his disciples including sadness, too, of course. But not only he is giving a fine performance, the numerous supporting actors are doing a fine job as well. Even Tatsuya Fujiwara ("Death Note") in his somewhat over-the-top supporting role is giving a good performance. Therefore, we don't just race through Dogen's biography, but instead his story gets certain accentuations which lets us become familiar with the characters around him and enables us to emotionally connect with their fates. The movie also deserves some praise for the fluent way it leapfrogs several years. Oftentimes we only understand that several years have gone by when we take a closer look at the faces of the actors which just seem a bit older. Especially the mask should be aplauded for that.

"Zen" may be putting modesty into the centre, but that doesn't mean that director Banmei Takahashi had to shoot his movie with a modest amount of money at hand. Especially at the beginning there are some wonderful landscape shots and also later on the numerous temples and several sets can be exciting to look at. Some computer animations seamlessly fit into the movie, other however would better have been left out. Also very well done, though, is the soundtrack by Haseo Nakanishi and Ryudo Uzaki that underlines the spirit of the film in an appealing way even if it might sound a bit too commercial on some occasions, too.
The movie naturally also made it its goal to sum up the teachings of Zen Buddhism for all those that have only little knowledge of it. "Zen" succeeds in doing so almost all throughout, there are only a few occasions where the teachings are conveyed a bit too forcefully in certain dialogues. Most of the time, though, the viewer constantly has the feeling to have learnt something about Zen Buddhism in an unobtrusive fashion.

Find yourself by letting yourself go. Actually, Zen Buddhism is about finding peace and spreading it. Who can tell if we are really going to paradise after death? Let's better create our own paradise here and now. Yes, that's possible, but only if we learn to have our mind and body fall away and by doing so learn to understand that this kind of bliss has been around us all along. All of this isn't easy to put into words but luckily the medium film has more options at its disposal than the spoken or written word. And it's just these tools that "Zen" makes effective use of. We get a fleeting glance at the core of Zen Buddhism and therefore can imagine so much more behind that. That's why "Zen" can be so touching and manages to create a feeling of peace within the viewer. The actors and the technical realization do their part for the movie to be memorable. In any case, "Zen" does awaken the yearning to escape our stressful everyday life. Maybe some viewers will even realize that the things they do are actually of no importance and that it really wouldn't be such a bad alternative to become a monk in a temple. However, only a handful will be able to realize their wishes or would want to do so and thus this movie remains a very interesting and also moving glance at an alternative way of living and religion that in many respects seems to be so much more superior to our western one.

(Author: Manfred Selzer)
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