SUNDANCE REVIEW: Punk Rock Meets Buddhism in Naoki Kato's Exquisitely Crafted Debut Feature 'Abraxas'
Japanese rock star Suneohair offers a wonderful and warm performance in this world cinema dramatic competition entry, writes James Greenberg.
PARK CITY -- (World Cinema Dramatic Competition) The idea of a Buddhist monk who is a punk rocker seems impossibly incongruous, and that's how his parishioners in a small Japanese town feel about it. But Jonen is no ordinary monk. He is a sensitive and troubled soul trying to silence the noise within. Abraxas, Naoki Kato's exquisitely crafted debut feature, is that rare spiritual film that is funny and moving without being stuffy. Years ago, it would have been the kind of film that played well in art houses, but today, like Jonen, it will have to search to find its place.
At the center of the film is a wonderful and warm performance by Japanese rock star Suneohair as Jonen. In his younger days, as we see in the opening moments, Jonen thrashed around the stage, violently swinging his guitar, falling over himself. But that was then, now he has a shaved head and has traded his torn T-shirt for a monk's robe.
As the film begins, Jonen has been sent to speak at a career day at a local high school. Popping anti-depressants before he goes on stage, he freezes in the spotlight and starts speaking in disconnected, abstract concepts. "A shrimp molts its entire life," he tells the baffled students before racing to the piano and banging out a few dissident chords.
This is not his first breakdown, having attempted suicide some years earlier. But this episode makes him the laughing stock of the town and throws him into a deep depression. Even the love of his wife Tae (Rie Tomosaka) and their darling five-year-old son can't save him. Finally, with the support of the wise senior monk Genshu (Kaoru Kobayashi) and the reluctant approval of his wife, Jonen decides he must make music again. He visits his old haunt in Tokyo, but it doesn't feel right and he realizes he must perform in town.
No one thinks this is a great idea, but Jonen is energized and plasters the town with posters announcing his performance at a karaoke bar. When Genshu asks if he's ready, he says he has "no idea." He's still battling his demons, trying to figure out what to do with the sounds in his head, and when one of his only friends hangs himself, he is thrown deeper into despair. He packs his guitar and takes off, leaving no word for his frantic wife.
In perhaps the most visually stunning scene (shot by Ryuto Kondo), in a film filled with them, Jonen finds himself on the beach. With the waves crashing and splashing, he sets up his amp up on a rock and begins wailing into the abyss, saying to the universe, "Let's duel." He's a guy with lots of karma to burn, burdened with years of suffering and family guilt. The waves knock him down, but he gets up again.
Back in town, the karaoke bar has withdrawn its invitation, and the only solution is to perform at the temple. Building a stage, setting up the amps, and greeting his black-clad musician friends are the kind of humorous, playful moments the film employs throughout. As the big day approaches, Jonen's wife requests only that he doesn't take all his clothes off.
In an ambling way, Kato has set up considerable tension about the show. What's going to happen? Will Jonen make a fool of himself? When he starts off with an acoustic song with beautiful lyrics, everyone breathes a sigh of relief. Hours later, by the time he is half-dressed and intensely rolling around the stage, he has found himself as a man and as a monk.
Kato actually makes interesting use of music throughout, choosing to use a non-Japanese soundtrack by Yoshihide Otomo featuring an understated guitar and banjo. But after Jonen's struggle, the most transcendent musical moment is him singing Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" in Japanese and English over the closing credits. Interestingly, and unbeknownst to the director, Cohen himself had studied to be a Buddhist monk. He would be happy to be in this beautiful film.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival, World Cinema Dramatic Competition
Production company: Bandai Visual Company, Bitters End, Fukushima Television Broadcasting Co., Office Shirous
Cast: Suneohair, Rie Tomosaka, Manami Honjo, Kaoru Kobayahsi, Ryouta Murai
Director-screenwriter: Naoki Kato
Producer: Hiroko Matsuda, Kosuke Oshida
Director of photography: Ryuto Kondo
Production designer: Koji Kozumi
Music: Yoshihide Otomo
Costume designer: Mari Mayamoto
Editor: Hitomi Kato
No rating, 113 minutes