The UK premiere of a Japanese erotic fantasy! It’s every bit as strange as its premise suggests, but what’s really remarkable is just how peaceful the whole thing is.
Ninko is a Buddhist monk. He’s a really good Buddhist monk. Indeed, the narrator describes him as the very “paragon of monkhood”. Ah, but he’s got a problem: women find him irresistible. So do a couple of men, but the less said about that gay panic subplot the better.
Any time Ninko goes into town to beg for alms, it’s pure Ninkomania. Women chase him with bared breasts as he runs screaming down the street. They literally throw themselves at him, and attempt to tear his robes from his body. One of them even visits him at his temple. She lures him into the bamboo forest, where she reveals that she has flames where her face should be…
Yeah, this is another of those films that starts off weird and gets weirder. Eventually, Ninko teams up with a ronin to help him hunt down a ghost that’s tormenting a village. And that final twist completely transforms the tone from bawdy kitsch to genuinely spooky folk horror.
Tone is one thing, and the tone here is profane. Feel is another thing entirely, and as befitting a story about an ascetic monk, Suffering of Ninko has a slow and meditative feel. It might be a softcore fantasy, but it’s a very tasteful, languid softcore fantasy. It’s got a hypnagogic fuzziness about it, like you’re drifting on the precipice of sleep after just one glass of wine.
It’s quiet, and it skillfully blends live action and animation to beautifully dreamy effect. Even the scenes of Ninkomania have an almost balletic feel to them, with their soft focus, graceful movements and elegant music. And no matter how crazy things get onscreen, the narration remains detached and measured. Overall, I found it to be profoundly calming.
The film’s only 70 minutes long, but it tells a complete story without ever rushing. Scenes are slow and calculated, but Ninko covers a lot of ground. It’s a series of bizarre vignettes linked by gorgeous animation. People melt into woodcuts, which melt into paintings, which melt into visions, which melt back into people.
This is a world of fantasy in which you’re invited to lose yourself. Its charms are impossible to resist. Let the surreal visuals and the soothing narration wash over you. It’s disjointed and utterly bizarre, and yet it all makes perfect sense. Making it to the end is like waking from a vivid dream.