Synopsis by Clarke Fountain
In the 12th century, Buddhism was still a relatively new religion in Japan. At that time, one school (Shingon) offered extensive training in complex and very demanding practices which might eventually bring about spiritual purification and realization. Various Zen schools offered students a lengthy path, literally composed of a blank wall and unceasing meditation. Yet another school (Tendai) emphasized complex metaphysics and the study of philosophical systems. Basically, all of them were designed to cater to the few who were able to give up everything else in their lives and focus on liberation, such as scholars and noblemen. In this historical and biographical drama, this is the situation that the young Shinran (1173-1263) discovered when he began exploring Buddhism as an alternative to the violence and ceaseless civil wars that racked Japan at the time. There was nothing out there for the common man, and the common man was desperately in need of hope and succor. Out of his experiences, the compassionate priest came to understand that "self-power" forms of practice were not especially helpful, and his teachings emphasized "other-power," the compassionate intervention of the Buddha Amida (Amitabha), which followers could receive by reciting an homage to him (Namo Amida Butsu). This alone would ensure the devotee's rebirth in Amida's Pure Land (a kind of heaven) and many blessings in this life. Hence, the school of Buddhism he founded came to be known as "Pure Land" or Shin Buddhism, and along with its many offshoots it became (as intended) the most popular and widespread form of Buddhist practice in Japan and continues in that role today. As for this complex movie, though lavishly produced, it was reportedly quite confusing to less well-informed (usually non-Japanese) audiences and failed to involve those for whom these religious controversies were not particularly compelling.