Year: 2010
Director: Kato Naoki
Screenplay: Kato Naoki
Cinematography: Kondo Ryuto
Cast: Watanabe Kenji/Suneohair, Tomosaka Rie, Kobayashi Kaoru, Murai Ryouta, Hosshan
Runtime: 113 min
Trailer: on YouTube
Official website:  Aburakusasu (in Japanese)

Seen at a screening as part of the Zipangu Fest at the ICA.

Based on the 2005 novel Aburakusasu no Matsuri (lit. ‘Abraxas Festival’) by Sōkyō Genyū, Abraxas is, in part, a music film and – not surprisingly – opens with music. The music is jarring: viewers watch a band rock away on a stage, in particular its lead singer, Jonen. Long hair hiding his face, he is jamming the guitar in an explosive manner and ends up writhing on the floor. Fast forward some twenty years and we see him again, now a shaven-headed Buddhist monk. But even in midlife Jonen is still very much a troubled soul and struggling with depression.

In scene 2, Jonen’s visit to a local high school’s career day leads to a furious rant at students and puts him in the bad graces of the people of his town. He still has the support of the always unfazed head monk (Kobayashi Kaoru) at his temple as well as from his wife (Tomosaka Rie), even if the latter shows her concern primarily by shouting “馬鹿!” (baka/idiot) at him. After the career day disaster, Jonen realises that the absence of music in his life is something he can no longer tolerate and decides to hold a cathartic concert to absolve himself from his demons through noise. However, the people around him – especially certain inhabitants of the town – are not too keen on this idea. Their reactions are understandable. Jonen isn’t a person that is easy to like, or a character viewers can sympathise or identify with easily. He can behave erratically, displays mood swings and also has neurotic tendencies, evidenced when masses of posters advertising his concert are plastered all over town. The film’s soundtrack further underscores all this, accompanying the story with sometimes melodious, sometimes rather shrill sounds.

Abraxas is a film then that can be summed up in a single word: discord. But this description isn’t negative, it merely points to the realism of the story told. By presenting a monk that is not at all what we imagine – a monk that has certainly not achieved anything close to a zen-like state but that is instead battling great, inner demons – the film tackles a difficult and worthwhile topic. It offers us a Jonen to observe, but not necessarily like, in the full complexity of this struggling existence. Scenes like him taking on the sea with his electric guitar (quickly leading to a short circuit) and a multiple-mirrors-mediation reveal the opposite extremes of Jonen’s state of mind (rage versus calm) and are among the most successful moments of the film.

But not everything works: Jonen’s slowly developing connection to Ryouta (Murai Ryouta), a teenager from the town, does not make for a particularly interesting secondary story line, indeed, it’s rather predictable and although Murai’s acting is fine, he looks, at 22, just a tad bit to old to portray a high schooler convincingly. Equally, story snippets involving Ryouta’s father Isaotaira (played by Hosshan, whose face you might recognise as that of the ‘scary pastry’ chef from バンビーノ!/Bambino!), or the dog Namu also do not add much substance to the film.

Abraxas is a fair debut for Kato Naoki, but does not stand out in any particular way. I would recommend it primarily to people interested in music-related films.

Rating: 7/10

On the music in Abraxas & bonus links:

Jonen himself is played by Kenji Watanabe, a real-life rock singer better known by the stage name of  スネオヘアー (Suneoheā/Suneohair). He performs on the soundtrack of Abraxas (link below), but is also known for ワルツ (“Waltz”) and スプリット (“Split”), theme songs of the anime adaptation of the ハチミツとクローバー (Hachimitsu to Kurōbā/Honey and Clover) manga.

OST for Abraxas plus discography for Suneohair
Suneoair’s last.fm entry (you can listen to his songs)