Jesus in Nirvana*

Saturday, May 16, 1998

Author: Gerow, Aaron
Japanase Title: Hyakunen no zessho
Director: Izuchi Kishu
Release Date: May 16, 1998


  • Production Company: Spiritual Movies Film Production
  • Release: 16 May 1998
  • Length: 87 min.
  • Format: 8 mm; 1:1.33
  • Color: Color


  • Director: Izuchi Kishu
  • Screenplay: Izuchi Kishu


  • Hirayama: Hirayama Hiroshi
  • Naomi: Hazumi Hotaru
  • Disappeared man: Tsubota Tetsuya
  • Singing woman: Kato Miyuki
  • Kume: Sano Kazuhiro

Using Relics to Gain Modern Revelations

In the age of digital video and $100 million movie spectacles, 8mm film must seem to most like a relic of the past. Super 8mm film was what people used in the old days before video to record baby’s first birthday party or junior’s graduation. Kids aspiring to be the next Hitchcock may have experimented with their dad’s 8mm camera, but once they got into film school, they quickly moved on to the real stuff: 16 and 35mm film.

However, 8mm film has enjoyed longer staying power in Japan because of its historical track record. Most of the directors working today - from Ishii Sogo and Omori Kazuki to Aoyama Shinji and Sento Naomi (formerly Kawase) - honed their skills with the small cameras, producing films in 8mm that can be counted as some of the best in Japanese cinema in the last 30 years. Even today, with little financial aid for student or experimental films, many aspiring filmmakers have no option but to use inexpensive 8mm stock if they want to work in film and not video.

Given this tradition, there is nothing denigrating about the fact that Izuchi Kishu, known for his brilliant screenplays to such Zeze Takahisa films as Kokkuri and Raigyo, chose to direct Jesus in Nirvana in 8mm, nor anything unusual about it playing at a regular movie theater. Good filmmaking is what counts, not big budgets, and Jesus in Nirvana, one of the better films of the year, deserves the recognition.

It must be stressed that 8mm was not only the cheapest means for making Jesus in Nirvana - it is also what befits this uncanny tale of the return of the repressed past. Years after his hometown was flooded by a dam, a young social dropout (Tsubota Tetsuya) plots revenge on those who planned the project, but dies in the process.

An equally alienated college grad, Hirayama (Hirayama Hiroshi), who works part-time at a used-record store, ends up having to help clean up the man’s records and inherits his turntable. It is in that machine and the old songs it plays that Hirayama perceives the voices and the images of the past, repressed rumblings which prompt him to continue the quest for revenge on behalf of the dead.

Izuchi’s surreal rendering of this story may have been more visually elegant in the standard 35mm format for feature films, but 8mm is more appropriate for this work, which overflows with other relics: 33 1/3 rpm records, dial telephones, 1970s music, hippie clothing, and protest movements.

The film’s “old” and somewhat grainy images mesh with a sense of dryness and decay that pervades the film, like the smell that overcomes you upon entering a dusty, used-book shop. Jesus in Nirvana’s middle section, which is dominated by long takes with little camera movement, may strike some as slow, if not amateurish. But it best evokes a feeling that fossils from the past are still weighing upon our present-day existence.

The film’s last 30 minutes breaks from that style to attempt a rapprochement with the dead in a tour de force of music and camera movements. As natural spirits begin to wreck revenge against the follies of human beings, the camera eerily roams through the rooms of the past or quickly leads Hirayama in a thrilling marathon to meet the dead.

Storywise, the film appears to be a critique of a Japan that has forgotten its past and its environment in the mad dash for progress. CDs and cellular phones may have largely replaced albums and dial phones, but the emergence of the new is merely a technological surface laid over a past that is dead but not properly buried.

Izuchi perhaps sees in this the source for the emptiness, the state of near-death that seems to define contemporary existence. Reconciliation for him demands confronting the past and recognizing the mummies that we have already become. Cinematically, it also demands confronting the superficial stylistics of today with images that acknowledge our haunted existence. For Izuchi, that could only be done by returning to that relic of the cinematic past - 8mm - and boldly searching out the sources for the contemporary movie malaise..

Reviewed by Aaron Gerow

Originally appeared in The Daily Yomiuri, 21 May 1998, p. 9

Copyright 1998: The Daily Yomiuri and Aaron Gerow