This Transient Life reminds us that monikers like ‘new wave’ are misleading in the way they suggest a cohesion of like-minded artists. Tokyo’s Art Theatre Guild, during its two and a half decades as a production outfit, was home to a very diverse range of filmmakers, of whom Akio Jissoji was hardly the most typical. This Transient Life was the feature film debut of this veteran of television superhero series Ultra Seven, Ultraman and Operation: Mystery! (Kaiki daisakusen). The previous year, he had shot the Nagisa Ôshima-scripted short When Twilight Draws Near (Yoiyami semareba), which ATG distributed as a pairing with Ôshima’s The Man Who Left His Will on Film (Tokyo senso sengo hiwa).
Much more than the capable taskmaster his modest roots would suggest, Jissoji had gained fame for the singular approach he brought to his serials. Buddhist symbolism abounds in his small-screen work and he had a knack for juxtaposing the fantastical with the mundane, giving birth to what admirer Shinya Tsukamoto calls ‘yojohan SF’, roughly translated as ‘science fiction on the tatami mat’ - a paradox whose fascinating, surreal effects Tsukamoto himself applied through the everyday suburban setting of his own epoch-making debut Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989).
In This Transient Life, the juxtaposition is of an eternal nature: sex and spirit. Its protagonists are a brother and sister from a rich Kansai family who resist the roles given to them by tradition: she refuses the many marriage proposals that come her way while her brother has no interest in enrolling in a university. Their close spiritual bond gives way, through a playful game with No masks, to incestuous coupling. When the sister finds herself pregnant, the siblings concoct a plan whereby she will accept the wedding proposal of a naí¯ve suitor and pretend the child is his. The brother departs for Kyoto to become an apprentice to a sculptor of Buddhist statues and begins an affair with his mentor’s wife - with the impotent older man’s blessing. But the incestuous lovers will not be kept apart for long.
Jissoji’s film was the first ATG production to gain success outside of the company’s established circuit, going on to win the Grand Prix at Locarno in the year of its release. It was not, however, the only ATG-produced film from the period that tackled incest, a doubly controversial subject matter in Japan for its prevalence in the history of the imperial family (even the two mythical ur-deities from which the family supposedly stems were brother and sister). Examples abound in the ATG catalogue, one of the most notable being Toshio Matsumoto’s Funeral Parade of Roses (Bara no soretsu, 1968), with its homosexual retelling of the Oedipus myth. Masahiro Shinoda even tackled the issue of imperial incest head on with his rendition of the story of prehistoric empress Himiko (1974).
Equally memorable are Jissoji’s stylish visuals. The hyperactive camera makes this a movie that truly moves, something the director intended as an evocation of the titular concept of transience, or the Buddhist belief that everything in this world is fleeting.