Note: Review copy supplied by Third Window Films
Title: The Suffering of Ninko
Publisher: Third Window Films
Genre: Drama / Horror / Comedy
Released: 23 July 2018
Running Time: 70 mins
Extras: Ichigo Jam short film, Interview with writer/director Norihiro Niwatsukino
Ninko, a young, diligent Buddhist monk, has one serious problem: Women can’t seem to resist him. They pester him so much that he can’t even ask for alms in town. Since sexual indulgence is considered a sin, he blames himself for not being virtuous enough. One day, he runs into a masked woman in the forest who tries to seduce him. Running away from her, his problem only gets worse. Nearly driven mad, he escapes deep into the mountains to be alone. There he finds a corpse in a deserted village, victimized by a specter who seduces the spirits of men. A samurai claims that he can kill the specter, and Ninko follows him, hoping that he’ll rid him of his curse.
NOTE: When referring to the series in this review, I shall be using the shortened name ‘TSoN’.
In terms of story execution, TSoN is a film that I would describe as ‘a tale of two halves’, with a strong finish that feels very different to the hit and miss start. You see, the first half of the film places a focus on comedy. While that in itself is not a bad thing, it’s the nature of the humour that is problematic. For one, it seems like the film is intent on beating viewers over the head with the same joke. That joke is that our poor protagonist Ninko is finding his devout lifestyle difficult due to the women of the nearby village throwing themselves at him.
Where this becomes a problem is that, as things progress, we get more and more scenes of the women stripping down and grabbing Ninko despite his protests. The simple fact is that the unwanted physical contact – which includes a full-on attempt to initiate intercourse later in the film – is not funny. While it does create some sympathy for our lead, it fails to elicit the laughter that it was obviously designed to, simply because assault is not something to be laughed at. To add to that, we also get the line ‘unfortunately, he attracted not only women.’ Now, to my knowledge, the general thinking in Buddhism is that for a holy man, all sexual contact is wrong, so the ‘unfortunately’ opening is a strange choice of words. Matters are really not helped by the two male monks in question coming across as quite creepy in how they stare at Ninko. The only saving grace here is that their torment of Ninko comes when he is shown walking in on them together, garnering a deadpan lack of interest from the monk. That at least means that they aren’t grabbing him in the same way as the women in the film.
The problematic elements don’t stop there either. When seeking assistance from the temple elder, Ninko is told that women are attracted to him because he irradiates disturbing emotions. The indication of the line is that women can’t help themselves but be drawn to these emotions, which I thought really bordered on belittling women’s ability to control themselves. Then there’s Ninko’s willingness to place the blame for his continued assault on himself. Yes, being able to view yourself as potentially at fault in a situation is a positive trait, but when it comes to this particular issue, the victim should absolutely not be portrayed as being to blame.
Of course, there are some positives scattered among these moments. Ninko is a likable character insofar as he’s clearly very dedicated to his calling, and while it was certainly not appropriate here, his willingness to take responsibility is a positive trait in itself. Jomei, another of the monks in the temple is also a good ally for our lead. He tries to reassure Ninko when he can, reminding him that this is not his fault, and when Jomei travels to the village without Ninko, he really does do his best to maintain control of the situation.
It is the moments where the film hints at what’s to come that stand out in this half of the film though. The opening scene gives off a horror vibe and creates a fair bit of intrigue from the get-go. There’s also a scene after Ninko’s being forced to remain in the temple where he meets a faceless woman with skin that legitimately burns. That whole section was suitably creepy.
Once Ninko decides to leave the temple on a pilgrimage, the whole tone of the film shifts. We still have the unfortunate moments of him being harassed by women wherever he goes, but they no longer feel like they’re supposed to be funny, and now come across as the actual bad experiences. The story presented from this point on is also a lot more engaging, with Ninko discovering that he has gained an unfair reputation as a womanizer and falling in with a mercenary ronin named Kanzo. Once the unlikely pair find a near deserted village that has been haunted by a succubus named Yama-Onna, things take a very dark turn too. While the bodies of the men that died at the spirit’s hands look a little hokey (though admittedly similar to the real-life mummies used in the 1979 feature Nosferatu, Phantom Der Nacht), the message they’re conveying is clear: death is coming to all men of village. It’s just a shame that Ninko’s decision to assist in ridding the village of its supernatural foe is once again spurred on by him – you’ve guessed it – being assaulted.
Once Ninko springs into action, the remainder of the film does a very good job of creating a suitably creepy conclusion. There are some wonderfully subtle moments, such as the world warping behind Kanzo as he tells Ninko that they are alike, and he will discover what sort of person he is soon enough. The end of the supernatural battle also provides a decent twist ending that, while once again revisiting the overused assault trope, ties the whole story back into the opening scene, essentially bringing things full circle.
From a technical standpoint, the film is far more consistent. The acting is mostly very good, and the musical score definitely helps set the tone throughout. By far the strongest part of the film is the way that it mixes live action with animation though. The traditional style art that is brought to life creates a very interesting aesthetic for the film, and serves the purpose of avoiding the need to try featuring some of the more bloody and explicit moments in live action.
As far as content warnings go, on top of the problematic themes mentioned above, this definitely not a film for those who prefer to avoid nudity in their viewing. There are a lot of topless scenes, and a few full-frontal scenes with a mixed quality of censorship.
So, where does this leave the film overall? Well, Norihiro Niwatsukino does deserves come credit for being a one-man band here, writing, directing, and animating the film. It also gets some plus points for the interesting visual choices. In the end though, the project seems to have been a little too ambitious. Had the opening half of the film been condensed into a ten-minute prologue piece, or even simply replaced many of the instances of the overused ‘joke’, then it would have fit much better with the stronger second half. If you pick the film up, I recommend skipping the first half hour or so, and watching from there, as what you will get then is an effective short horror film. As it is though, the inconsistencies and the problematic themes mean that I can’t give the overall presentation a higher score than 2 out of 5.
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