January 4, 2012

Indie-esque mainstream pleaser falls short.

Abraxas no matsuri (Japan, 2010)

Ear-tearing noise-rock may not be the most usual way to open a movie about zen monks. Then again, Japanese monks aren’t the most usual bunch, ranging from ex-boxer bartenders (Pirjo Honkasalo’s documentary film Ito: A Diary of an Urban Priest, 2009) to rock stars, as found in Naoki Kato’s Abraxas. It’s a story based on 2011 novel by famous Japanese monk Sokyu Genyu.

The opening is quite something indeed – Jonen is a noise-rocker who defies decibel regulations and trashes half of the stage as part of his regular performance. Clothes have hard time staying on, too…

Enter adulthood + burnout. Monastery proves the solution and zen for the soul. But, can Jonen take all the harmony, or will his rocker explode from the lack on noise?

In director Kato’s hands, and perhaps because of the source material, too, a promising idea is given only a half-satisfying take. Despite an original and perhaps “indie-esque” premise, the film is aimed at mainstream audiences. It ends up softening much of its core with sappy family drama and moral message.

Still, there is a target audience for the film out there – mainstream critics and adventurous semi-mainstream audiences – and for them it may indeed prove a hit as the film’s festival success would suggest). But for all its potential there’s a constant feel of compromise in order not to alienate certain audiences.

Real life rocker Suneohair aka Kenji Watanabe is the film’s major ace. He’s quite an interesting sight in his portrait of Jonen, and carries the film over some lesser moments. His adventures would’ve deserved more spark. Dropping some of the more conventional drama and opting for HD digital cinematography to give it a more documentaristic spin (as was successfully done in the similarly balanced semi-mainstream film The Rise and Fall of the Unparalleled Band) might have worked.

In it’s current form the film feels – and looks, with it’s technically competent and colorful 35mm look – very safe. An exception to this safety comes in form of a few hard rock performances that are bound to have some of the audience holding their ears!

Disappointments aside, Abraxas is ultimately an entertaining if under-performing drama with strong lead, and no doubt plenty to enjoy for those who come looking something safe yet more original than your average multiplex offering. Oh, and the beautiful landscapes seen in the film are found in Japan’s now “notorious” Fukushima prefecture. And no, life did not end there in March 2011, despite what the media might have had you believe.

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