He might sound like a character from Mad TV, but the hip hop Buddhist priest is a perfect example of how the traditional and the modern peacefully coexist in Japan. He will be one of our guides in Tim Grabham & Neil Cantwell’s KanZeOn (trailer here), a ruminative documentary-essay exploration of the relationship between Buddhism and music in Japanese culture, which screens during the 2013 International Buddhist Film Festival Showcase in the Bay Area.
KanZeOn is another word for the Buddhist embodiment of compassion. It is often written in a way that evokes sound and visual beauty. There are many enchanting sounds in KanZeOn, such as Eri Fujii’s shō. At least in small doses, the pipe instrument has an eerie splendor and of course it has an origin based in legend.
Just as Fujii often plays to the accompaniment of nature’s ambient noise, Akinobu Tatsumi also beatboxes to the sounds of the great outdoors. Buddhism and music are his family traditions. He has his share of stories too, such as how his temple’s ancient bell was saved from the scrap metal drive during WWII. Watching him give a hip hop presentation to a ladies society is quite a sight to behold, but it clearly appeals to Grabham and Cantwell’s sensibilities.
Without Buddhism there could be no Noh theater explains kotsuzumi drummer Akihiro Iitomi, KanZeOn’s third POV figure. There is a marked austerity to the music he plays for his company’s productions, yet he is a regular visitor to the Dolphy Jazz Bar, where the music swings pretty hard from what we hear. Again, tradition and modernity meet.
KanZeOn is surprisingly avant-garde in its conception, but strikingly elegant in its execution. In fact, it compares quite favorably to Castaing-Taylor and Paravel’s deliberately obscure Leviathan opening today in New York. Frankly, there are times when it is impossible to tell whether their camera is above or below the ocean. Whereas that over-hyped commercial fishing doc is all about how they problematize the viewing experience, KanZeOn will work with audiences willing to meet it halfway.
Much like Tatsumi, Grabham and Cantwell demonstrate a hip hop tendency to sample and juxtapose. Yet, the music, stories, and lush natural scenery always give viewers plenty to hold onto. Indeed, those scenes of light rain falling on Shinto shrines look wonderfully inviting after a long day of urban bustle. More importantly, for the spiritually inclined or questioning, there are plenty of take-aways to be found sprinkled throughout the film in unlikely places.