KanZeOn, although classified as a documentary, should be treated more like an invitation as it divulges into the lives of three Japanese Buddhist, each of whom explore their musical talents and express their philosophy through their instruments. It’s also very difficult to decide how the audience should appreciate this film as you could keep your eyes closed for the entire duration and be treated to an audible sensation like never before. But in doing so, you may miss out on the beautiful cinematography and visual landscape of Kyushu, the third largest island of Japan where it was mainly shot. It is unusual for a creative medium to be enjoyed in numerous ways and it envelopes into an awe inspiring experience that will almost demand you watch it all over again.
Co-directors Neil Cantwell and Tim Grabham present Akinobu Tatsumi, a young priest who takes care of a temple in Kumamoto City by day and becomes a Dj and beatboxer by night, Eri Fujii, who specialises in a bamboo flute instrument called the Sho that apparently sounds like the mythical bird phoenix, and Akihiro Iitomi, a Noh performer who uses the Kotsudumi Drum in his performances. The film is separated into incantations exploring different episodes of their lives such as their cultural origins, musical duties, discussing the spiritual connection with their instruments and how they perform in front of an audience. The incantations are intersected with scenes and sounds of Japan in all its wonderful glory. Highlights include Tatsumi beatboxing with an amplifier in the middle of a rope bridge that amazingly stretches across a valley and Fujii playing her Sho near a waterfall mimicking it’s flowing tone as if thinking the sounds of the thundering waves and her soft, high pitched notes where in synch. It is often said to understand the artist you must first understand their art – and it bears true here for you almost, without cruelty, disregard the musicians explanation and wait patiently for them to perform to understand what they are trying to express through their music. They talk of love, passion, dedication, loyalty, faith, spirituality and of course Dharma. In some ways, this isn’t a performance for them. It’s a ritual.
The film does not have a story arc, nor does it have ‘talking head’ segments providing opinions – it focuses instead on evoking emotions that transcend you to another place creating an ambience that is peaceful, spiritual and perfect for meditation. The editing, both visually and audibly, is beautifully crafted allowing you to flow from one incantation to another in tones that seem perfectly pitches throughout. If ever there was an example of a poetry in motion – it is KanZeOn, for it beautifully combines different disciplines and elements such as sound, motion, light, history, prayers and chanting, colour, classical, modern, organic and technology – as one. Intersected scenes also present other sounds of Japan such as the chimes of ancient temple bells, the murmur among people, the night life from bustling cities as well as the night life from the forest where insects, birds and animal roam.
KanZeOn is a gorgeous film that you’ll certainly enjoy over and over again. What you encounter is a religious experience unlike anything you have felt before as KanZeOn is an alternative spelling for Kannon (Buddhist goddess of compassion) which is written as ‘to see sound’ – and that is exactly what this film explores. And it does so exceeding well.
KanZeOn will be shown Sunday, 15th April at the International Buddhist Film Festival
Reviewed by Vaskar S. Kayastha