Japan has a very healthy tradition of weird and unique cinema, but the past couple of years a favoring of safer, production committee-type films has made it a lot harder for daring projects to find their way. Luckily there are still some hardheaded, maverick directors around, with the power of crowdfunding backing their enthusiasm there is still hope for the Japanese indie scene. Norihiro Niwatsukino's Suffering of Ninko [Ninko no Junan] is such a weirdly unique film and a brilliant example of how a little crowdsourced financial support coupled with plenty of artistic freedom can lead to amazing cinema.
Making a film like this is difficult enough, getting it distributed internationally is where the real trouble starts. Luckily Third Window Films picked it up, added some tasty extras and released it on a nice Bluray/DVD combo. A clear sign that even though VOD is growing bigger every year, we still need smaller labels to pick up the films that would otherwise fall through the cracks. Suffering of Ninko is one of those films that, while great, also serves of a sad reminder of all the amazing films we're probably never going to see because of lacking distribution.
Suffering of Ninko has been described as excessively weird and rightfully so. Still, it's weird in a somewhat strange, subdued and understated way. Much of the film plays like a traditional Japanese legend, with monks, specters and wayward samurai roaming the forests and villages of feudal Japan. But the actual legend is bit wonky, a strange tale that relies on dark and deadpan comedy, with a nice little streak of the absurd. It the combination of these two elements and Niwatsukino's commitment to make them both work that sets this film apart.
The story follows Ninko, a young and devoted monk who wants to spend his life climbing the religious ranks. The only hurdle is that women are tremendously attracted to him. Whenever he visits the local town, women literally throw themselves at his feet. This of course is a tough problem for someone who vowed to renounce the pleasures of the human flesh. After an encounter with a female spirit, Ninko decides that enough is enough and he leaves his monestary to roam the lands, hoping to find peace and quiet elsewhere.
Even though the film is a low-budget affair, visually it's still very attractive. Niwatsukino makes excellent use of the impressive settings, the lighting is lush and the CG is sparse but effective. Mix in some animation with a classic art style and you're set for something special. I do feel the colors are bit too muted, a decision that does feels artistic in nature rather than a technical limitation, but it didn't quite win me over. I would've preferred more saturated colors, though in the end it's just a minor quibble with little impact on the overall feel.
The music is mostly traditional in nature, but not without its own set of playful winks. There are some classical Western pieces here that get a Japanese makeover, adding to the strange mood that permeates the rest of the film. There's some nice audiovisual tailoring going on too, which, besides setting a clear pace and rhythm, further adds to the overall impact of the score. It's this level of detail that I appreciate a lot. A clear upside of a director doing his own editing.
Much of the film rests on the shoulders of Masato Tsujioka who plays Ninko, the lead character. He has the tough job of keeping a straight face while he's being bombarded by willing women. Tsujioka finds the right balance between comical and serious and somehow manages to make sense of his character. Secondary parts are good too, though much smaller in scope and size. Hideta Iwahashi is probably the one who stands out the most besides Tsujioka, but in the end this really is Tsujioka's place to shine.
Recommending a film like this is no easy task. If you're partial to Japanese weirdness it's a pretty safe bet, otherwise it's anybody's guess really. Being familiar with classic Japanese legends and folklore is definitely a plus though, as it helps to spot the boundaries where the cultural elements stop and the general oddities start. A lot of the humor is drawn from the tension between those two and failing to see that might make it seem random and pointless rather than smart and ingenious.
Suffering of Ninko is the kind of film that made me fall in love with Japanese cinema all these years ago. It's different, fun, it looks great and its overall very creative. Also, clocking in at merely 70 minutes, there's simply no time for it to start dragging or become boring. Norihiro Niwatsukino is a talent that, when given the opportunity, could grow into one of of Japan's great (alternative) directors. By giving himself writing, directing, editing and producing credits, he can truly claim this film to be his own. Suffering of Ninko is a superbly unique experience that, should you feel in the mood for something different, is an absolute must-see.