Review for Suffering Of Ninko
Just when you start thinking that the world is going to corporate hell in a handbasket, a film like Suffering of Ninko arrives to remind you that the independent spirit is alive and kicking. Shot over the space of a couple of weeks in 2012, it actually took another four years to complete. Made on an ephemeral budget of around $100,000, this is one of those films where the director practically did everything, including producing the film. He even had to teach himself how to animate and to create special effects, as doing it himself was cheaper than paying someone else to. And typically of independent films, Suffering of Ninko wowed the foreign film festival circuit, and flopped domestically. Well, we foreigners can be a discerning bunch, and Suffering of Ninko now comes to the UK on Blu-ray from Third Window Films for us to appreciate.
Ninko is a monk with a problem. He pursues the ascetic life in an isolated temple in the forest, but problems arise when he has to travel to the local village to beg for alms. Women find Ninko irresistible, and they make their desires plain whenever he visits. They look forward to his visits. As someone sworn to celibacy, Ninko’s solution of avoiding the village merely makes the women’s desires stronger. And then the dreams and the fantasies begin. There’s no other choice but to go on a journey to the mountains to purify himself. But as his master reminds him, there’s a difference between finding himself and running from himself.
Suffering of Ninko is presented on this Blu-ray disc with a 1.78:1 widescreen 1080p transfer. The first thing that I noticed is just how washed out the picture is. This is one of those transfers where it seems the brightness has been tweaked a little too far (happens often with Japanese source material), so the film looks fine, bright and colourful in daytime scenes, but in darker or shadowy scenes, contrast is minimal, blacks tend to grey, and detail is lost. There is also some banding in scene fades. Otherwise the film is watchable, if a little disappointing given the excellent cinematography. Suffering of Ninko also blends live action with very stylistic anime sequences (based on classical art styles fitting the period film).
You get a DTS-HD MA 2.0 Stereo Japanese track with optional translated English subtitles. The dialogue is clear throughout, and the subtitles in the film are free of typos and timed accurately. The music really suits the film well, and also offers a unique interpretation of Ravel’s Bolero.
The disc boots quickly to an animated menu.
Here you will find a detailed interview with writer director Norihiro Niwatsukino, which lasts 42:51 and is presented in 1080i 60Hz. You get a sense of how he truly had to become a one man band to get this film made.
You also get his earlier short film, Ichigojam which lasts 32:48 (1080i). A girl studying in the city helps a hungry friend out with her homemade strawberry jam, and gets her mind opened to the erotic possibilities of the confection.
Suffering of Ninko is fabulous in the original sense of the word. It’s the kind of tale that Aesop might have cooked up after hours and after one too many ouzos. Norihiro Niwatsukino has created an erotic myth, a steamy ghost story that delivers an important message about the difference between self-repression and asceticism. In the monk Ninko he creates a character that is torn between what he wants to do, and what he refuses to do. And in both cases, it’s the same thing.
Sexual repression is a common theme across both films on this disc, Ichigojam and Suffering of Ninko, but while Ichigojam has a familiar playful correlation between food and sex (see Tampopo), Suffering of Ninko is comparatively unique. Or at least I haven’t seen too many erotic comedy horror films.
The animation sequences aside, I did get the sense of a harem anime comedy as the film started, with Ninko at first seeming like one of those milquetoast anime leads that has a sexual allure at odds with his character, and who undeservedly gathers a coterie of females ready to throw themselves at him. The film starts off in that comic vein, with poor Ninko constantly harassed as he tries to collect alms from the village women.
Things quickly get darker when it turns out that Ninko isn’t actually an asexual ascetic, but someone whose mind becomes more lustful, the more he tries to meditate his way through his issues. He tries to pursue an ascetic ideal through self control, but the more he concentrates on his problems, the worse they get. That eventually leads to his choice to leave the monastery and head into the mountains.
The final act of the film is where the horror really comes to life. Ninko first encounters a ronin, a masterless samurai named Kanzo, and together they arrive at a deserted village, whose menfolk are being preyed upon by a Yama-onna, a succubus like creature that is draining men of their life-energy. The bereft villagers see a warrior and a priest as their best chance of defeating the monster and beg their help. But there’s a price to be paid.
As you might expect from an erotic horror, there is a lot of nudity in the film, and the visual aesthetic of the film works well to convey the eroticism. It’s a little surprising that the film made it through the BBFC with a 15 rating. Suffering of Ninko certainly captures the imagination, a film unlike any other I have seen. If there is something holding it back, it’s the runtime. The film really is a fable, a narrative set up to deliver its gut punch ending, and as such the characters feel underdeveloped, and the story somewhat thin. I wish that there was more meat on the bones of this story. But it is well worth watching.