Michaele Jordan is the author of the period occult thriller Mirror Maze and her stories have appeared in Redstone Science Fiction, Buzzy Mag, The Crimson Pact, Volumes 4 and 5 and Fantasy and Science Fiction. You can visit her website at MichaeleJordan.com while waiting for the upcoming steampunk adventure Jocasta and the Indians.
In my never ending (and probably fruitless) quest to win anime the respect it deserves, I bring to your attention a film the like of which you have never seen: Kihachiro Kawamoto’s 2005 short feature, Shisha no Sho. The Book of the Dead, as it is titled in English, is different in every frame.
I’ll start with the difference in the frames. The Book of the Dead is done in stop-motion. Modern animation has wandered so far from stop motion that I’ve heard it argued (although not by anyone I respect) that stop-motion doesn’t really count as animation at all. Fortunately, this point of view is rare, if only because we have Wallace and Gromit to remind us that stop-motion is every bit as painstaking as hand drawn cells. But even those who delight in “The Wrong Trousers” and “A Grand Day Out” still tend to think of stop-motion as claymation, or perhaps the special effects in a Ray Haryhausen movie.
Not so! In The Book of the Dead. Kihachiro Kawamoto tells his story with beautifully crafted puppets moving around elaborate models and detailed sets.
Before I continue to the unusual story, I should warn you in advance, that this is not light material. Although I encourage everyone to check this out, simply for its visual magnificence, you need to know that following the complicated story will require your focused attention. Also some familiarity with Japanese history, or at least Buddhist doctrine, would be a big help.
We open with the arrival in town of the provincial governor. Otomo no Yakamochi (718-785) is not a fictional character, but an important and well-born 8th century administrator.
And yet he is here more as a narrator than an important character. His queries lead us to Iratsume. Iratsume was not, as far as I can determine, a historical figure—which makes her something of an oddball in this film. She is beautiful and aristocratic, which means her life is predetermined and empty.
She turns her considerable (and useless) intelligence to the new religion from China, and devotes herself to making a thousand copies of a rare sutra. You might say she becomes a religious fanatic. And one night at sunset, she is granted a vision.
She thinks she has been granted a vision of the Buddha, but in fact it is not the Buddha, or any bodhisattva that she sees. It is the ghost of Prince Otsu.
Prince Otsu (663-686) lived about a hundred years before the events in The Book of the Dead. He was a popular and capable young man (not to mention a famous poet) who seemed destined to become emperor after his father. But one of his father’s wives decided she would prefer for her own son to inherit, and manufactured charges of treason against him. Naturally he was ordered to commit suicide. Just before his death he wrote,
Today, taking my last sight of the mallards
Crying on the pond of Iware,
Must I vanish into the clouds!
The restless spirit of a betrayed prince seems to be a common theme in Japanese literature, ancient and modern, and indeed in Japanese history. We see a similar concern in Yōjirō Takita’s delightful 2001 film, Onmyoji or The YinYang Master. In Onmyoji (sometimes spelled Onmyouji) we follow the magical adventures of the historic personage Abe no Seimei (921-1005) who must appease the angry spirit of Prince Sawara (ca. 750 to 785) to save Kyoto. Seimei really was an official court onmyoji, although his work was rather more prosaic and administrative than the magic depicted in the movie. And Prince Sawara really was wrongly accused and punished for the assassination of an important official. His curse on the city was taken so seriously at the time that he was posthumously promoted to emperor.
Pacifying Prince Otsu’s ghost proves a bit more complicated. He does not seek a return to temporal power, but is obsessed with the memory of the last woman he saw in his lifetime—a spectator at his suicide. He now mistakes Iratsume for that lost lady.
She has mistaken him and he has mistaken her. As a disembodied spirit, he craves the material world. As a trapped pawn in a dark world, she craves the spiritual realm. They circle each other with strange deeds and unattainable longings in a framework of Buddhist values and beliefs which are exotic, if not outright alien, to our Western expectations.
Yes, it is difficult—tangled and thought-provoking, with more sub-text than dialogue. But it is very much worth your while, and available on YouTube.