'Suffering of Ninko' ('Ninkô no junan'): Film Review

Courtesy of SIFF
Masato Tsujioka in 'Suffering of Ninko'
A one-joke folk tale that takes a fruitful detour midway through.

A Japanese monk has a problem most men would envy in Norihiro Niwatsukino's folk tale.

A Japanese monk will get little sympathy from most viewers in Norihiro Niwatsukino's period piece Suffering of Ninko — his affliction, it turns out, is that he's irresistible to women. That's quite an obstacle to a life of chaste contemplation though, and the writer-director's debut seems at first destined to beat its single poor-Ninko gag into the ground. Though it does latch onto some engaging complications midway through, the feature still feels like it would play better as a half-hour short; stateside theatrical prospects are slim.

Masato Tsujioka plays the title character, a resident of an Edo period monastery whose daily trips to collect alms create small riots in the streets. The young man is handsome enough in his shaved head and robes, but must be sending out some kind of miracle pheromones to have female villagers throng around him to such an extent. When the head of the monastery suggests he should stop doing these rounds, the ladies are so upset they attack Ninko's fellow monks.

"It is my fault. I'm not virtuous enough," says our sad protagonist, who doubles down on meditation but only winds up more tormented by visions of topless, eager women; one extremely long sequence tries with limited success to milk this mental anguish for laughs. Elsewhere, animation in a variety of borrowed historical styles (done by the director himself) helps cement the story's folkloric vibe.

Things pick up when Ninko suffers a breakdown and becomes a wanderer, chanting sutras in the woods and punishing himself by standing under waterfalls. Out here he meets a ragged samurai named Kanzo. In a nearby village, the two are asked to confront a witch who is luring men out to the forest and, well, draining them of their precious bodily fluids.

Ninko would seem well equipped to deal with a succubus, but things get even more interesting than expected. The twists fit nicely into the mold of traditional ghost stories explored in films like Masaki Kobayashi's 1964 Kwaidan: Not exactly scary, but spookier than the picture's ribald setup suggests. Suffice to say that if Ninko ever does give in to the temptation he constantly faces, things are going to get ugly.

Production company: Tricycle Films
Cast: Masato Tsujioka, Miho Wakabayashi, Hideta Iwahashi, Yukino Arimoto
Director-screenwriter: Norihiro Niwatsukino
Producers: Norihiro Niwatsukino, Katsuyuki Takemoto
Directors of photography: Takayuki Okazaki, Shunichiro Yamamoto
Music: Office Higuchi

Editor: Norihiro Niwatsukino
Sales: Asian Shadows
Venue: Seattle International Film Festival

In Japanese
70 minutes

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