In fairness, this review eases off once a L’empire des signes mode of discourse is deployed. The daily diegetic trifles, subtle imbalances in character movements, elusive-awkward preaching engaged with almost hyperreal imagery… it all amounts to an unravelling of sarcasm, of insincerity. A countering reaction is made towards the narrative through what lies beneath facial tics, the pale nō-men – a hollowed single signifier – as well as in Mount Fuji, mise-en-scene behind the nervous protagonist monk. This frivolous dilemma, as a semiotic operation of Zen, a ‘Zen’s Puzzle’, around which the film thematically revolves.
This approach, while certainly ratifiable, can be labelled as simplistic. Firstly, the naivety in late capitalism’s subjection to Baudrillard’s Code is totally underestimated: extremely high speed and contingent exchangeability can devour and force homogeneity without effort. The monks’ quotidian spectacles (i.e., lunch boxes, E-cigarettes, suicide hotlines, the symbolism of ‘allergy’) is under threat, as is the structural operation of Zen itself. Mu (void), the essence of Zen, and the aforementioned codified reality (hyperreality, transcending the dialogue between signifier and signified) which orbits it, embody contemporality. A conspiracy is intrigued here. Does the void behind the plastic have a higher or lower degree of Zen, compared to the void behind the truck bed dream? The Tomita-punk star chart landscape suddenly emerging from the background, behind the preaching master nun, substantiates and parodies this conspiracy. We can look to a previous generation of ‘Zen’s Puzzle’ performers – Nam June Paik, Chris Parker, Kurosawa Kiyoshi, obviously Barthes himself – for a definite difference. These figures have comparatively sustained a sort of operationality, along with pretentious dandyism, which stands opposed to the ordinary people in Tenzo‘s story, who are entirely overpowered and diafiltrated by the dilemmas they face, realistic or structural. Tomita himself reaffirms this profane-cum-sincere stance in the talk which follows the screening; a desire to travel beyond ‘Zen’s Puzzle’, to earnestly question degradation in both Zen and societal structures, is recognisable. This is the ‘Puzzle of Zen’.
In this newly defined era, the conversion from an aesthetic operation, ‘Zen’s Puzzle’, to earnest questioning in ‘Puzzle of Zen’ is Tomita Katsuya’s ambition. Within the imagery of the film, this conversion is identifiable in the transmit-receive apparatus which composes physical stimulation, and experimentation, and how it changes to suit discussions of the polis in amphitheatre. Subtle, exaggerated uncertainty is ‘half-acted’ by amateurs in a re-engagement with NHK ‘water, rice and earth’ documentary styles, rather than reiterating the previous generation of avant-garde filmmakers’ penchant for exploitation (see Tsukamoto’s Shinya’s Sôseiji (1999)). Textually radical imagery is carved into a sense of embarrassment by the ‘mirror of reality’. Here, we no longer receive or physiologically react to Zen’s operative transmission. Embarrassment is a reaction. We share the ‘Puzzle of Zen’, its confusions, its questioning at Tomita’s and the Zen Buddhists’ hands; many characters in this film are played by real monks. Concurrently, Tomita urges for the public to participate, another effort under the ‘Puzzle of Zen’ to engage with community. Instead of discussing something like film ethics in a post-311 world (a question already ‘answered’ by Allan Resnais, among innumerable others), the film represents an awareness of limitations in previous generations’ radical practices, which extends to an awareness of ‘Zen’s Puzzle’ itself – an awareness shared by contemporary Western artists and filmmakers.
Is this earnest questioning of the ‘Puzzle of Zen’ effective? I’m afraid no positive answer is likely to be given. It is true that Tomita reflects and challenges stylised practices made by KUZOKU and himself, and tries to engage with a more socially responsible cinematic position. In Tenzo, however, I would not argue the success of this attempt. For one, the serious and unflinching biopolitical provocation which posits a respectful and urgent gesture towards the ‘Puzzle’ is not granted enough time for exploration. Instead, too many sentimentalities and phenomenological contacts are offered as placebos. As a result, Tomita’s questioning can be considered rather ostentatious, even impotent. ‘Minor writing’ rewinds to ‘major sign’. Though, perhaps it is unfair to demand too much from Tomita. In a sense, this ‘failure’ is a part of the ‘Puzzle’, as a question asked. The only option, it would seem, is to pursue the question, and the answer that will not come.