Rebirth of Buddha
Sayako Amanogawa is an aspiring journalist, who is in for a shock when her mentor commits suicide. When she sees his literal ghost at the train station and is nearly pulled to her own death, this proves only the beginning of what turns out to be a great battle for the very souls of the people of Japan ... and ultimately, the world.
Rebirth of Buddha could actually have been a great film if it had been written and produced by anyone else but a religious organization.
Using the trappings of modern-day anime films and television series as the basis for religious proselytism is nothing new under the sun: back in 1981, Tatsunoko teamed up with the Christian Broadcasting Network (yes, the same one founded by Pat Robertson) to create the 52 episode series Superbook. Happy Science itself had created four previous films, beginning with Hermes - The Winds of Love in 1997, and spiraling sideways from there, as its filmography has consistently proven to have little to offer anyone outside the church faithful.
The same goes for Rebirth of Buddha - far too often, the narrative involves sitting through multiple drawn-out sermons about letting go of the great sins of greed, anger, and ...foolishness. The talk about rejecting foolishness is so heavily emphasized that I wonder if the church's religious texts had been written by Franziska von Karma from Phoenix Wright, but hey, you gotta save all those foolish fools from acting foolishly in their foolishness.
One of the main problems with this film is its constant insistence that the spiritual threats shown herein have very physical manifestations, and therefore, the best ways to cure terminal cancer and even tsunamis are to just pray them away. This leads to the inevitable unfortunate implication that the events of March 2011 happened because the adherents of Happy Science just didn't pray hard enough to save everyone.
"To cure illness, you must correct your mind." If only it were that easy, Happy Science. If only.
The characters are pretty one-dimensional, though oddly likable -- Sayako Amanogawa is the sort of Japanese EveryGirl who has an on-again-off-again boyfriend (Yuki Unabara) who turns out to be in cahoots with this organization trying to support the reincarnation of Buddha who wants to save everybody (the smooth-voiced, incredibly obvious Big Good, Taiyo Sorano -- "the shining sun of the heavens"). Rounding out the TSI folks are Sayako's plucky little brother Shunta, pop idol and big-sister figure Mari Kimura, and wacky comic-relief Aussie Harry Budson (get it, "Buddha's son"?) who is essentially the only reminder throughout this entire film that there is actually a world outside Japan. There's also a stentorian obvious impostor Buddha, Tosaku Arai, who I knew from the get-go was going to be bad news because he exudes the same creepy vibe I get from that damn Crossing Over douchebag. The odd part is that the only version available on YouTube is dubbed - with no indication or credit of the English voice cast and yet STILL subtitled based on the original Japanese audio, leading to a very distracting experience. The dubbing isn't bad, per se, but it is occasionally unfortunate, given that precious few of the actors are apparently able to properly pronounce Japanese names, and they never quite agree whether our protagonist's name is Sayako or Sayoko.
It's just very, very unfortunate that the writing ultimately falls into several drawn-out cliches: the bad guy psychic Sonan Group (a very thin fictionalization of Happy Science's erstville real-life rivals Aum Shinri Kyo and other "false-prophet" new religions) unleash some horrible mass-attack on the Japanese populace under the pretense of protecting them, which the TSI invariably defeats because, well, they're the good guys. At some point in time, Sayako becomes the conduit for saving Japan from both an alien invasion and a tsunami through sheer force of prayer -- but not entirely through her own actions, but through her belief and faith in Sorano. The idea that anyone needs to be manipulated into doing good or evil is a very unfortunate rejection of free will, one that seeps clearly through to this film's un-nuanced and downright woeful depiction of atheists as smug, selfish, and solipsistic.
What's really frustrating here is that for all the shortcomings of the writing and direction, undoubtedly critically hamstrung by the insistence of the creators that Moral Lessons Must be Taught, the art and animation are actually quite good. The character design and movement, the backgrounds -- everything looks really good, except perhaps, the occasionally overwhelming use of CG effects in action sequences (especially in the final battle, which looks nothing so much to be as a strange mashup of the music video for Daler Mehndi's "Tunak Tunak Tun" set in a baseball stadium).
As a final insult, when the good guys finally defeat the demonic spirits responsible, saving Japan (and ostensibly the rest of the world, which clearly matters less than Japan since no one's fighting for it as hard) and erstwhile bad guys are forgiven (sort of), we get to hear an Engrish song play over the credits explaining what just happened, as if they didn't trust us to have paid attention to the sixteen sermons during the film.
I really wish I could be nicer to Rebirth of Buddha. Happy Science is really trying to send a positive message to the world - to be nicer to each other as human beings and to build your success on your own merits and not by tearing each other down (and certainly not by dousing the Tokyo subway system in sarin like those Aum Shinri Kyo jackasses), this message is wrapped in a story that is so cliched, so maudlin, and so thoroughly drowned in treacle that it ends up a soppy, cloying mess. But hey, at least it earns one heck of a Nice Try Award.
Another Happy Science film, another missed opportunity to meld religion into a well-told story. These guys are bound to get it right one of these years, if they pray hard enough. It's still way the heck better than Battlefield Earth. — Carlos/Giancarla Ross
Recommended Audience: There is a lot of violence, though primarily of the spiritual possession form, though near the end there are some psychic energy battles. The bad guys do threaten children. A tsunami is used to threaten the entirety of Japan in a scene rendered incredibly disturbing by the events of March 2011.
Version(s) Viewed: Digital source, English dubbed
Review Status: Full (1/1)
Rebirth of Buddha © 2009 Happy Science
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