Camera Japan 2013 Review: BURNING BUDDHA MAN Puts Paper On Fire
This year, the Camera Japan Festival in Rotterdam had a particularly nice anime section, and the film Burning Buddha Man was part of it. However, a case can be made that this title does not count as an anime. Technically speaking, what you're seeing is paper cut-out puppetry which is live-action rather than animation.
Then again, Burning Buddha Man is crazy enough not to count as part of anything anyway, and drawings do make up most of the film, so the programmers are probably forgiven.
This is a science-fiction fantasy horror action film, and a gory one as well, made with paper cut-out dolls. It's fair to say that first-time director Ujicha (one name only) has provided quite a unique debut. What is it about? Read on!
Buddha statues are being stolen all over Japan, and the thieves seem to be using a form of teleportation. One evening, when school girl Beniko comes home, she discovers her parents have been killed in the local temple, with most of their bodies missing along with the Buddha statue.
When she investigates the matter, Beniko stumbles across a secret organization of monks who use teleportation to fuse their bodies with Buddha statues, turning themselves into monsters with supernatural powers. Thankfully the monks have enemies as well, and these contact Beniko for help in fighting this evil. Through training, magic and technology, can Beniko become strong enough to defeat the Burning Buddha Man?
The script for Burning Buddha Man must have looked as daft on paper, as the end result does IN paper. With a story resembling a fever dream of a seven-year-old, the decision to use moving paper cutouts is an inspired and strangely logical one: with visuals looking this odd and fake, it sure isn't the story which gets your attention, at least not at first.
The conceit of using this particular technique is emphasized by actually showing the creation process. A small live-action segment at the start shows people discussing a story they want to tell, and next you see them draw, cut, and place the figures into their equally fake landscapes. The actual story of Beniko begins immediately after the first pieces of paper start forming a composition, the camera diving into the set as if filming an action film.
The benefits of this approach are manifold: for starters, the imagination is truly the only limitation. No matter how weird things get, you can always make a drawing of it and cut-and-paste it into your movie. And instead of having to focus on realism in either movement, acting or artwork, Ujicha could spend all his time on making his film as barmy as possible. No matter how strange the story gets, it gets told in a straight, serious way, full of (melo)drama and without a single narrative joke. All of the humor is to be found in the way paper is used, the exaggerated facial expressions and the overall bizarre nature of what it is you're watching. Especially paper characters vomiting got a big laugh out of the audience whenever it happened. And the artwork doesn't resemble anime at all, going instead for a painted-with-felt-tip look that is often as ugly as it is fascinating.
Does it work though? By its nature it is hard to compare Burning Buddha Man with anything else, as there is nothing quite like it. Going for sheer entertainment value, it works up to a point, but then it suddenly has its length against it. As a short it would have been absolutely fantastic, and at any length between three and thirty minutes I would have been clamoring for more. But Burning Buddha Man is 80 minutes long, and even though that isn't much for a full feature, fatigue does set in during the third act. Just as the general surprise starts to wane, Ujicha is forced to repeat several of his paper tricks over and over again, unfortunately exposing the limitations of this technique.
But make no mistake: if Burning Buddha Man tickles your funny bone or wins you over with its silly charm, you're in for a good time with it. I left the cinema thinking about what kind of film I'd like to make myself with such limited yet outrageous means, and that in itself was already worth the price of admission.
Director Ujicha has crafted a unique, weird and oddly charming film for his debut, and watching Burning Buddha Man made me giddy for most of its running time. By the end it does get a bit long in the tooth when you get used to the bizarre paper visuals, but getting to that point sure is entertaining.
So this film is cautiously recommended as a film, but definitely recommended as a piece of curiosa! I leave you with the trailer, so you can judge for yourself whether this is your cup of tea or not...