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Films about a child's experience of Buddhism

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My research-paper students, who are focused on writing about film, are beginning work on their major projects. I've introduced them to Arts & Faith, hoping that some of them might venture into this community with some questions related to their research, to draw upon your expertise.

So... as a test case:

Let's say I'm writing a research paper about the experience of children raised in a Buddhist tradition. What films would you recommend I watch as preliminary research? Kundun? What else? Have you come across any interviews with filmmakers who discuss portrayals of Buddhism in film? Are there particular texts you would recommend — both about Buddhism on film, and about the experiences of children raised in that tradition?

 

 

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Regarding children, coming of age, and Buddhism, I immediately think of the films of Japanese directors like Ozu and Kurosawa. Many of Ozu's films center on the experiences of children, like Good Morning and I Was Born, But.... The films of Hayao Miyazaki often have underlying Buddhist themes and ideas, as well as Shinto themes, and those are nearly all about children/youth or have child protagonists. Bertolucci's The Last Emperor also comes to mind.

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Having watched all of Kurosawa's films (most, thrice or more) and many Ozu films, I can only think of one that deals with this specific topic even peripherally.  Rhapsody in August, a 1991 film by Kurosawa, has a poignant scene where a grandmother and her 4 grandkids participate in a Buddhist ceremony of remembrance for the dead of Nagasaki.

My impression is that Ghibli films deal far more with Shinto ideas and imagery, rather than Buddhist, though Pom Poko in particular melds the two.  Little to nothing about kids and Buddhism in that film, though.

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3 hours ago, Andrew said:

Having watched all of Kurosawa's films (most, thrice or more) and many Ozu films, I can only think of one that deals with this specific topic even peripherally.  Rhapsody in August, a 1991 film by Kurosawa, has a poignant scene where a grandmother and her 4 grandkids participate in a Buddhist ceremony of remembrance for the dead of Nagasaki.

My impression is that Ghibli films deal far more with Shinto ideas and imagery, rather than Buddhist, though Pom Poko in particular melds the two.  Little to nothing about kids and Buddhism in that film, though.

I was hoping you'd comment, Andrew, as your knowledge of Kurosawa far surpasses my own. While Buddhist practices within the films themselves may be peripheral or seem absent, is it fair to say that Japanese Buddhist culture has an influence or can be assumed in many of Ozu's films? I recall reading in Paul Schrader's Transcendental Style in Film about Ozu and Zen culture, how his films' structures embody Zen practices and ideas.

While I haven't seen it, Kim Ki-Duk's Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring is about the life stages of a Buddhist apprentice/monk as he grows up in a monastery, from his childhood into old age.

Edited by Joel Mayward

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On 2/17/2017 at 10:06 AM, Joel Mayward said:

While Buddhist practices within the films themselves may be peripheral or seem absent, is it fair to say that Japanese Buddhist culture has an influence or can be assumed in many of Ozu's films? I recall reading in Paul Schrader's Transcendental Style in Film about Ozu and Zen culture, how his films' structures embody Zen practices and ideas.

Interesting point and question.  It's been a while since I've read up on Zen Buddhism, so I'm digging deep into my far-from-perfect memory banks on this.  Off the top of my head, I'm not convinced that Ozu's films draw all that heavily from Zen.  On the other hand, his films exemplify the Japanese concept of mono no aware, a gentle sadness at the transience of all things.  Since as I understand it, Buddhism idealizes lack of attachment, I'd consider this concept imperfectly Buddhist at best.  I could be wrong, though.

(Parenthetically, a couple of films depicting Buddhist ritual or artistry popped into my head.  Late Spring - Ozu again - has a climactic scene occur at a Noh performance, the several hundred year old dramatic form heavily influenced by Zen.  Daibyonin - a hard to track down film by Juzo Itami, of Tampopo fame - climaxes with a orchestrated performance of a Buddhist sutra.  Stunning stuff.)

Actually, I think Kurosawa's films draw more upon Zen.  The Zen concept of satori, or sudden shocking enlightenment, shows up repeatedly, from his first film and famously including the 'happy birthday' scene in Ikiru.  Zen and its ideals of the noble swordsman are all over Seven Samurai.  In a sense, lots of Kurosawa's films are coming of age tales in a Buddhist-inflected culture, though the maturing folks are typically young adults, as in the young judo artist gaining enlightenment at the monastery in Sanshiro Sugata or the young doctor of Red Beard.

And good call on Kim Ki-Duk's film; I'd forgotten all about it, since I haven't seen it in perhaps a decade.  But yeah, that may be the best film example in answer to Jeffrey's original question.

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Only semi-joking: The Empire Strikes Back. Yoda was kind of Buddhist, no? I do believe Irvin Kershner and Billy Dee Williams both talked about their involvement in that film in relation to their Buddhist leanings.

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Bertolucci's Little Buddha, which starred Keanu Reeves as the original Buddha, was basically a Buddhist Sunday School movie as I recall, with modern-day scenes of children being taught about Buddhism.

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4 hours ago, Peter T Chattaway said:

Bertolucci's Little Buddha, which starred Keanu Reeves as the original Buddha, was basically a Buddhist Sunday School movie as I recall, with modern-day scenes of children being taught about Buddhism.

I thought of the same movie, but (since I haven't seen it) didn't want to mention it without knowing exactly how watchable it is.

Edited by NBooth

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NBooth wrote:
: I thought of the same movie, but (since I haven't seen it) didn't want to mention it without knowing exactly how watchable it is.

I haven't seen the film since it came out 20-plus years ago, but I used to listen to the soundtrack album a lot. I do remember using the "Buddhist Sunday School movie" line quite a bit when discussing the movie with my friends.

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Doesn't Life of Pi involve Pi dabbling in Buddhism a little? Or was it just Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam?

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8 hours ago, Justin Hanvey said:

Doesn't Life of Pi involve Pi dabbling in Buddhism a little? Or was it just Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam?

I thought of Life of Pi too, and you're correct: he explores Hindu, Christian, and Muslim faiths, but doesn't mention Buddhist beliefs, IIRC.

 

23 hours ago, Andrew said:

Interesting point and question.  It's been a while since I've read up on Zen Buddhism, so I'm digging deep into my far-from-perfect memory banks on this.  Off the top of my head, I'm not convinced that Ozu's films draw all that heavily from Zen.  On the other hand, his films exemplify the Japanese concept of mono no aware, a gentle sadness at the transience of all things.  Since as I understand it, Buddhism idealizes lack of attachment, I'd consider this concept imperfectly Buddhist at best.  I could be wrong, though.

(Parenthetically, a couple of films depicting Buddhist ritual or artistry popped into my head.  Late Spring - Ozu again - has a climactic scene occur at a Noh performance, the several hundred year old dramatic form heavily influenced by Zen.  Daibyonin - a hard to track down film by Juzo Itami, of Tampopo fame - climaxes with a orchestrated performance of a Buddhist sutra.  Stunning stuff.)

Actually, I think Kurosawa's films draw more upon Zen.  The Zen concept of satori, or sudden shocking enlightenment, shows up repeatedly, from his first film and famously including the 'happy birthday' scene in Ikiru.  Zen and its ideals of the noble swordsman are all over Seven Samurai.  In a sense, lots of Kurosawa's films are coming of age tales in a Buddhist-inflected culture, though the maturing folks are typically young adults, as in the young judo artist gaining enlightenment at the monastery in Sanshiro Sugata or the young doctor of Red Beard.

I am, admittedly, no expert on the various expressions of Buddhism, and it may be presumptuous on my part, but recognizing the Buddhist influence and history within Japanese culture made me wonder if these exemplary Japanese directors had explored or expressed Buddhist themes, particular Zen. I've not yet seen a Kenji Mizoguchi film, so I can't speak to his portrayal of children or Buddhism--anyone else have insight into this?

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Not specifically about children's experiences of being raised in Buddhism, but about a major figure in spreading Buddhism in India: the Bollywood movie Asoka (or Ashoka the Great) is a fictionalized biography of Emperor Asoka who converted to Buddhism after a life of war and conquest. It's also a cracking adventure with a romance, and there's singing and dancing! Suitable for all ages.

 

Edited by BethR

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