A lot can be said for artistic design, which is the primary strength within Kihachiro Kawamoto's historical puppetry drama, The Book of the Dead. There's magic within Kawamoto's craft and pondering ideals, yet it seems like this piece leaves a bit to be desired. Certainly, the visual splendor of his work is everpresent across the film's runtime, but it seems somewhat hollow and contextually repressed for its rhythm. Luckily, The Book of the Dead still captivates with its silky smooth puppetry and histrionic essence enough for welcome eyes to soak it in as charming performance art.
Kawamoto, a renowned Czech animator, tells Shinobu Origuchi's concise and intricate story about Iratsume, a noble Japanese woman in the eighth (8th) century who becomes entranced with her discovery of the Buddhist religion's meaningfulness. We learn, through narration, about how she becomes obsessed with repeatedly copying a sutra, never ceasing to stop until she's scrolled one-thousand (1,000) copies. Soon after she finishes, a "miracle" occurs; the visage of Buddha begins to form shortly after her climactic etchings. Her vision deceives her, as the image isn't that of the incarnation of Buddha - but of a fallen prince who, in turn, mistakes Iratsume for a woman of his past.
The Book of the Dead utilizes a plentiful stream of themes throughout its allegorical time with the audience, namely devotion and its ambiguously nurturing capacity. Iratsume finds peace in repeating the same Buddhist mantra over and over, only to roll them up and set them next to her work station. The scrolls almost resemble the scratch marks that you might find in a prison cell, only shining in a much more serene light. They share the same purpose - time measures linked with diligence. Kawamoto tries to scatter constrained elements like this, as well as fluttering thoughts on the balance between the physical and metaphysical worlds, all throughout his thoughtful meditation on religion and the search for tranquility.
He does so with his masterful stop-motion animation techniques and immaculate set design for his puppetry. As the characters walk, or trot on horseback in some cases, the level of tangibility can really surprise you. If it weren't for a keen eye for aesthetics that Kawamoto clearly has, particularly for costume design and facial structure, then his characters might not pour through much of a presence. Instead, each individual stands out with piercing eyes and gallant expressions that keep your focus upon their movements. When they're not on-screen, or conducting monotonous activities like writing or stitching, then the overwhelming detail within their surroundings locks in your visual attention. Little elements, like the textures on fabric or the realistic nature of Iratsume's brushes, can really surprise you with their levels of tangibility. Either way, there's always something amazing to look at in Kawamoto's work.
What The Book of the Dead lacks, however, is a gripping energy that would keep its dramatic momentum as captivating as its visual and idealistic pleasures. Much like a methodically paced traditional kabuki performance, this hour-long piece takes a lyrical, textual path that can be both beautiful and highly challenging on your patience. As you soak in the minimal story and the allegorical symbolism, it manifests into more poetry and art on-screen than an interactive narrative that would tie everything together. More importantly, it also becomes a performance that hinges on personal interpretation of the metaphysical and idyllic thoughts. Some of the ideas, especially as Book of the Dead reaches its conclusion, unravel without much gravity towards explaining its formulations. However, Kawamoto's piece is about the pathway traveled, not so much the destination.
Kino presents The Book of the Dead in a standard keepcase presentation with dark coverart that illustrates that the film is a part of the "Kimstim Collection".
Presented in its original full frame presentation, The Book of the Dead's stunning color palette looks incredible through this transfer. There are a few hints of aliasing and digital noise in some of the more complex visual scenes, but the level of detail can actually be quite staggering when focused upon the props utilized in Kawamoto's set design. Color depth is the star of the show here, though, and in that respect this disc looks astonishing.
The Book of the Dead's Stereo track isn't nearly as captivating, though it does get the job done aptly. The narrator's vocal strength comes through just fine, as do plenty of the sound effects that actually do come into the picture with the film, such as raindrops and galloping. Nothing spectacular, but it serves its purpose just fine. Only burnt-in English subtitles are available.
Sadly, no supplements have been collected for this release.
Kihachiro Kawamoto's The Book of the Dead ropes together visual brilliance and philosophical pensiveness for a short film's worth of elegant puppeteer's art. Though its thematic ideas and entrancing visuals swallow up the film's shallow dramatic drive, the experience and thought alone make it worth the time for a Rental. Kawamoto is a true artist, and soaking in his historical work is a truly unique experience - even when the pacing can grow wearisome.
Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site