The Burning Buddha Man

Moeru Butsuzô Ningen
2013 / 80m - Japan
Horror, Fantasy - Animation
The Burning Buddha Man poster

When he released The Burning Buddha Man [Moeru Butsuzô Ningen], director Ujicha startled the world with his special brand of Gekimation. At least, he would have if anyone had paid him any attention. It's a godsend that Third Window Films picked up the rights to his work and decided to release a neat little box set, otherwise Ujicha's otherworldly features would've no doubt descended into obscurity. That didn't happen, so now everyone can enjoy the weirdness that spilled right out of Ujicha's brain onto the celluloid.

screen capture of The Burning Buddha Man [Moeru Butsuzô Ningen]

If you've never heard of the term gekimation before, don't feel too bad. It's a rather obscure technique that never really found much traction, let alone make its way into the mainstream. It's a slightly different take on puppet animation, rather that use puppets the artist uses cutouts of drawings that he shoots with an actual camera. The setting is made up of parallax layers, to add a little extra depth to the visuals. It's a bit like Mini-Pato or Mario Paper, only with actual drawings and a real camera. Creating an entire film like this is painstakingly difficult, it's no surprise then to hear it took Ujicha more than 3 years to complete this film.

To do all of this by yourself is borderline insane, but it also comes with some clear benefits. There's nobody here telling Ujicha what (not) to make, and he exploits that freedom to the fullest. Looking at the plot, the art style and the characters, it's hard to imagine any professional studio taking a risk on this type of material. But when you do everything yourself, there's no one to intervene and what comes out is unadulterated creativity, no matter how weird, insane and possibly off-putting it may be. The result of this undertaking was always going to be incredibly niche, so why not lean into it?

Beniko lives with her parents in a monastery, where they are tasked to protect a giant Buddha statue. Things go awry when they get a visit from Seaddattha, a mysterious organization that steals Buddha statues. Beniko's parents are killed in the process, and she ends up with Enju, a friend of the family. She agrees to live with the old monk, but once there she quickly discovers that he hides some pretty gruesome secrets. What follows is quite unhinged, and I'm honestly a bit uncertain of all the details, but I'm sure consecutive viewings will fix this. It's safe to say though that the plot is quite out there.

screen capture of The Burning Buddha Man [Moeru Butsuzô Ningen]

The Burning Buddha Man derives a lot of appeal from its stark visual style. That doesn't mean it looks extremely next-gen or even seamless, but it's almost certain to leave a strong impression. The bold art style of the drawings, the often baffling creature designs, the intricate parallax setups, the nifty camera work, the focal changes and the mix of real-world effects with the paper cutouts all add to the otherworldly vibe of the visuals. It's a style I never quite got used to and as a result, I never stopped noticing its minor imperfections. At the same time I couldn't help but marvel at the uniqueness and distinctiveness of it all, making it a clear selling point of Ujicha's work.

The soundtrack has a very similar DIY charm to it, though fails to be equally alienating as the designs and the plot. It's certainly an eclectic score that cycles through many genres and moods, but it can feel a bit random, and it isn't always tailored to the visuals. Maybe Ujicha just didn't have the budget, or he was too occupied with fine-tuning the animation, either way a stronger, more polished soundtrack could've pushed this film even further. Luckily, the voice acting is right on the mark and gives the characters plenty of individuality, a real perk for a film where characters only emote through exaggerated expressions and rudimentary motion. Another positive is that there's no English dub to ruin things, always a plus.

screen capture of The Burning Buddha Man [Moeru Butsuzô Ningen]

The Burning Buddha Man is an odd beast that is sure to stupefy a large part of its audience. Ujicha builds up his film rather well though, so you get some time to get adjusted to its particular vibe. After a pretty zany introduction, the film slows down, giving you some room to get a feel for the characters, the style of animation and the rules of its universe. That's not going to be enough to get everyone on board, but people with a seasoned taste for the weird will be sufficiently prepared to take on the increasingly strange second half. At just under 80 minutes, the runtime is pretty much perfect too.

I'm not quite sure who to recommend a film like this to. It might be a bit too different for traditional animation fans, too out there for serious film buffs and too unpolished for lovers of the weird. But if you crave ardor and energy, unbridled creativity and uncompromising originality, then The Burning Buddha Man is a film you simply cannot miss out on. There are no guarantees here, but Ujicha's passion is beyond question. The unique animation style, the grotesque art style, the off the wall plot and the immense scale of Ujicha's undertaking make this an experience like no other. Watch at your own peril, but I promise you you won't come out the other end unaffected.