Zen – The Movie about Dogen


A dramatic reconstruction of the life of the great Japanese monk Dogen, who lived in Japan in the 13th century and introduced Soto Zen Buddhism from China.


A movie about Zen can be considered an ambitious work. The general expectations are high, because this movie tries to depict the actual core of Zen Buddhism. The film is a simple biography of master Dogen, based on a novel by Tetsuo Otani who, however, took some small liberties when it comes to historical accurateness – like, for instance Orin’s story, or that of a regent gone insane who hopes to find healing with Dogen’s help, or that of a young monk gone astray – which appear to be added for dramatic effect and is not sure that they really form a part of Dogen’s life-story. Anyway, the director covers the important points of Dogen’s spiritual trajectory, and he does it in a beautiful manner.

The story is about Dogen, and we accompany him on his path of life and journey through different situations. The movie also introduces different other characters, who all add a certain aspect to the overall picture. In his travels and teachings, Dogen encounters many different people. Some guide him, some follow him, and some test him, but all become crucial figures in his spiritual journey of peace and meditation.

Luckily, though, the movie isn’t overloaded with small details but focuses on what is essential for both Dogen’s life and Zen Buddhism. The film also portrays on several occasions the everyday life of the priests and their meditation sessions.

It is a movie with a slow pacing. There are some wonderful landscape shots and also beautiful temples and sets. It is a nice cinematographic work although the colours sometimes appear to be very washed out and we sense an overall gloominess of the image and atmosphere. Some computer animations are present, and they fit more or less into the movie. Well done is the soundtrack – by Haseo Nakanishi and Ryudo Uzaki – that underlines the spirit of the film in an appealing way.

The movie tries to sum up the teachings of Zen Buddhism for all those that have little knowledge of it. “Zen” succeeds in doing so almost completely, but there are (only a few) occasions where the teachings are conveyed a bit too forcefully in certain dialogues. Most of the time, though, we constantly have the feeling that we can learn something about Zen Buddhism and this is done by the director in an unobtrusive fashion.


First: Be free from desire

Second: Be satisfied

Third: Be tranquil

Fourth: Be diligent

Fifth: Remember the teachings

Sixth: Meditate

Seventh: Practice wisdom

Eighth: Avoid pointless talk.

Unless you study these you are not a disciple of the Buddha!


To study the Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be enlightened by all things of the universe. To be enlightened by all things of the universe is to cast off the body and mind of the self as well as those of others. Even the traces of enlightenment are wiped out.

In short:

  • “Zen” focuses on the life of Dogen, the 13th-century monk who founded one of the main Zen sects, Soto-shu. The film is generally faithful to what is known of his life, from the early deaths of his parents to his travels in China and his difficulties with the religious powers of his time.

  • “Zen“ was directed by Banmei Takahashi and stars Kantaro Nakamura, the 19th generation Kabuki actor and son of Kabuki legend, Nakamura Kanzaburo, who delivers a masterful performance, capturing the quality of Dogen’s character. You can find all the cast in the link below.

  • In addition to the life of Buddhist practice, the film skillfully conveys the life of Japan in the 13th century: war, famine, political struggles, deep mountain forests and burgeoning urban areas.

  • Although the cinematography (Chinese landscapes, mountain monasteries) is spectacular, the filmmakers seem to have made a particular effort in always keeping focused on human beings.

  • Some will say that the movie is pretentious, too Hollywood-like, too action-packed and not that profound that it should be… And maybe they are right.

All in all, see the movie. It’s ok.

P.S 1

This movie is not about Zen. It is about Dogen Zenji. Of course, Dogen Zenji is the founder of Soto Zen School, but one can have the expectations to see what Zen is, from A to Z, or from Z to N. The viewer won’t see it much (and if will see it, it will be just ‘indirectly’), but surely will have many opportunities to hear it.

P.S 2

Maybe at the end of the movie some will realize that the things they do are actually of no importance and that it really wouldn’t be such a bad alternative to become a monk in a temple. However, only a handful will be able to realize their wishes or would want to do so and thus this movie remains a very interesting and also moving glance at an alternative way of living and religion that in many respects seems to be so much more superior to our western one.

IMDB rated it 7.4/10 The cast is here

watch trailer here : Trailer

watch movie here: Movie

listen movie theme: Theme