Photo/IllutrationA scene from “Tenzo” (Provided by Kuzoku)

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

TSU--“Tenzo,” a film that is winning rave reviews after it was showcased at the Cannes Film Festival this year, pulls no punches in its depictions of the Buddhist priesthood.

Produced by Ryugyo Kurashima, chief priest at Shitennoji temple here, the quasi-documentary delves into the tormented lives of two Buddhist priests.

Kurashima, 42, fought an uphill battle in taking a warts-and-all approach to the subject matter.

As “Tenzo” includes scenes in which the priests smoke and drink, some members of his Soto sect of Buddhism put up strong objections, saying the film was at odds with its doctrines.

But Kurashima managed to win them over by patiently explaining that people in the modern age do not think all priests are saintly and that the sect will never win sympathy and understanding from the public if the movie only portrays the good sides of religious life.

Kurashima also insisted on submitting the 62-minute film to the Cannes festival in the hope it would overturn people's negativity toward religion.

“By making this film, I wanted to spread information on a global scale to people with whom we usually have no contact as well as those who have other sets of values,” he said.

Kurashima decided to make the film after he became head of the of the All-Japan Young Soto Zen Buddhist Priest Association in 2017.

“Tenzo” refers to the title given to a priest in charge of preparing meals at a Zen monastery. The film focuses on the distress of fellow disciples: The senior man lost his family members and home in the 2011 earthquake and tsunami disaster while the junior disciple raises a son with a food allergy.


At the age of 23, Kurashima underwent Buddhist training in France and Germany, where he was stunned by the easy manner in which Buddhists in those non-Buddhist countries engaged in “zazen” meditation before leaving for work.

It was completely at odds with how followers behave in Japan.

After Kurashima returned home, he resolved to find new ways to spread his faith.

He tried a number of unconventional approaches to achieve that goal, for example, by teaming up with other monks to form a Japanese “taiko” drumming troupe and selling “shojin curry” (Buddhist-style vegetarian curry) made without meat and artificial additives.

Making a film was another option. He had harbored such a project since he visited Cannes during his early training in France.

Kurashima contacted Katsuya Tomita, a member of a film-producing group called Kuzoku, to direct the film.

Kurashima not only served as producer but also appeared as the senior disciple. Although there was a screenplay, the movie comes across as more documentary-oriented.


Kurashima was also adamant about submitting the film to the Cannes Film Festival, with the piece invited to be screened as part of its International Critics’ Week section for young directors.

Before Kurashima applied for Cannes, his acquaintances in the film industry panned his plan, saying it would be a waste of money. But Kurahima persevered in the belief that the project had value and would help people with closed minds to broaden their perspectives and find ways to interact with the world.

“Tenzo,” released theatrically in Japan in October, is generating a huge response.

The 14th Dalai Lama issued a statement expressing his happiness that the film portrays the lives of Japanese priests contributing to society.

In late October, Kurashima attended a film festival in Tunisia, which is predominately Muslim. At the request of the organizer, he walked on the red carpet dressed in a “kesa” Buddhist robe.

“Film allows us to interact with people with different sets of values,” Kurashima said. “That is exactly what cinema can offer.”