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Pile of Shame
Rebirth of Buddha

by Justin Sevakis,

A few months ago I got the opportunity to go to a screening and write a review for The Mystical Laws, the latest in a long line of feature films produced by Happy Science, (Kofuku no Kagaku). It ended up being pretty decent, and far exceeded my low expectations. For those who don't know, Happy Science is a "new religion" started in the mid-80s by ex-banker Ryuho Okawa, who claims to be the reincarnation of Buddha (and that his then-wife was the reincarnation of Aphrodite). The group is compared a lot to Scientology, but has a peaceful reputation. Nonetheless, their increasing influence on Japanese politics has raised suspicion.

Of course, one doesn't normally go to films produced and funded by fringe religions expecting a good time. in my case I had previously seen another film of theirs, known as Rebirth of Buddha, and I had the scars to prove it.

The film starts with Sayako, an ambitious high school journalist who dreams of following in the footsteps of family friend and newspaper reporter Dokuzo Kanemoto. She is shocked to find out that Kanemoto has committed suicide following an erroneous story being printed. Not long after that, she's hearing the inner thoughts of her classmates, feeling spirits emanating from her history textbook, and is generally being haunted at every turn. Finally, after one such ghost pulls her in front of a moving train, she sees the "trial" of Kanemoto for his suicide. Railing against the concept of god, he is deemed by the judges to have wasted his life, and is sucked into a vortex. Moments later Sayako is saved from the train by her on-again-off-again college boyfriend Yuuki. Yuuki has the answers Sayako is looking for. He explains that evil spirits are failed reincarnations, of which suicide victims are the worst.

Other revoltin' developments are afoot. The charismatic religious leader Arai is becoming more and more prominent in the media, at one point using telekinesis to save an anchorman from a falling light. Sayako attends Arai's seminar hoping to interview him, but ends up being dramatically busted out by Yuuki, just as evil henchmen are approaching. Sayako's little brother Shunta then contracts a mysterious illness, and Yuuki brings his friends from the church -- and their enigmatic leader Ryuho Okawa, er, Taiyo Sorano to come and expel all of the evil spirits! He gives the distraught parents a nice little sermon. He explains to Sayako that she's seeing spirits because she has a mission to convey the truth to the world. He leaves. All is well.

Later, at the festival, aliens invade. Like, Independence Day style aliens, complete with giant destructive beams, all blowing the city to smithereens. Luckily, Sayako is there. She points at the UFOs dramatically, and in a swirl of sakura petals, she turns them into a giant glowing lotus flower. There is no real explanation for this, but all of the yokels nearby tell us she's fighting the aliens. The aliens, of course, are a giant mirage generated by Arai, and fought off by Sorano.

This plot is exhausting with its speed and detail, but basically Arai and his group are 100% evil, Sorano is 100% good (and also Buddha), and all of this is leading to a giant throwdown. This happens to take place in a crowded baseball stadium, where Arai arrives on a giant tentacled UFO platform and tells Sayako to preach his religion, or he will kill everyone. When she refuses, he transforms into an ancient demon. And that's about when Sorano arrives, in full suit and tie and riding a bunch of elephants. 'Cause, you know, he's Buddha.

This film, and Okawa's book on which it's based, is apparently meant as an answer to those that would compare Happy Science to Aum or another destructive cult. For all its numerous plot contrivances and grandstanding, its message is pretty simple: "No, look, they're evil and want to kill people. We want to spread messages of peace and love, and also tons of religious propaganda. We're good!"

Visually, the film is actually very well produced. Lushly animated by the late, great Group TAC turns in some pretty high-end work, albeit featuring some fairly garish color key that would look more at home in an early-2000s digipaint show. (There are also some really janky looking 3D-CG angels, but they don't do much other than float there.) Anime voice all-stars such as Takehito Koyasu and Ami Koshimizu populate the cast. This is a high-end production, make no mistake. The problem is, essentially, that it seems like nobody has ever told the Happy Science people about a little concept called "suspension of disbelief." Basically, once you cross a certain line of insanity, nobody can take your story seriously.

And Rebirth of Buddha is absolutely impossible to take seriously. Every new plot development seems like it's coming completely out of left field. By the time Sorano arrives to do battle with Arai, I was literally jumping up and down in front of the TV, amazed at their sheer audacity. I mean, don't get me wrong, it's hilarious. But if this is to be used as a recruiting tool, you might as well take any piece of 1950s era pulp fiction and try to espouse that as a religion too. Bug men from outer space make a hell of a lot more sense than anything going on here.

Apparently Rebirth of Buddha doesn't quite match the levels of outright insanity as earlier Happy Science anime, such as The Laws of Eternity (which involves Buddha Thomas Edison and Space Hitler), but is nonetheless the sort of well-meaning trainwreck that seems to call out for drunken Mystery Science Theater treatment. I'm honestly shocked that it hasn't yet become a cult favorite. (rimshot)

Japanese Name: 仏陀再誕 (Buddha Saitan)

Media Type: Movie

Length: 115 min.

Vintage: 2009

Genres: Action, Fantasy, Weirdness

Availability (Japan): The Japanese DVD release has a dub in English, Spanish, Portugese, Korean, Chinese and Hindi, and subtitles in all of those, plus Nepali, Sinhala, Thai, German and French.

Availability (English): There don't appear to be any home video releases of Happy Science anime outside of Japan.

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