electronic journal of contemporary japanese
Film Review 1 in 2008
First Published in ejcjs
on 26 January 2008
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Searching for the Soul of Modern Japan
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Dir: Tommi Mendel
Japanese with subtitles
Length: 73 mins.
Production and Distribution:
Tiger Toda Productions
In recent years, full length documentary films have been reaching an
increasingly broad spectrum of audiences, thanks in no small part to the
efforts of Michael Moore, Al Gore, and Morgan Spurlock, and this has
provided great impetus and encouragement to independent producers of
factual content to go out and make their own films. The impact of the
internet on film-making has also been profound, enabling independent
producers to make films – of varying degrees of quality and on all manner
of different themes – on a low budget, and to market and distribute them
through alternative channels.
Tommi Mendel's Arukihenro (Walking Pilgrims, 2006) is a study in
visual anthropology and was made partly
as a dissertation submission for a master's degree at the University of Zurich
and partly as a personal exploration of Mendel's deepening relationship with
Japan and Japanese people. Self-taught as a film-maker, Mendel walked the
88 Temple Shikoku pilgrimage, meeting and accompanying pilgrims along the
way, and made this film as an ethnographic portrait of both the pilgrimage
itself and, more broadly, as a comment on personal meaning in Japanese
society. Cutting between interview segments with pilgrims, observations by
academics, temple priests, and local residents, and panoramic shots of
pilgrims walking through Shikoku's impressive land and sea scapes, Mendel
puts together a documentary road movie as he constructs a vivid portrait
of the pilgrimage. In so doing, Arukihenro provides deep insights
into the religious and socio-cultural foundations of contemporary Japan.
The film begins with a young Japanese man seated in a bare apartment
viewing film of himself undertaking the pilgrimage and reminiscing about
his experiences. From there we embark with Mendel on the pilgrimage
itself, and we slowly wander along the entire route, from Tokushima, round
through Kochi and Ehime, and thence to the final destination in Kagawa
prefecture. At its heart, the film is an investigation of the motivations
that each individual brings to his or her journey around the pilgrimage,
how the pilgrimage fits into and changes people's lives, and it then uses
this as a basis for a deeper exploration of the psychologies and emotions
present in Japanese society today.
While the great majority of pilgrims are tourists on packaged bus tours,
who crowd each temple in order to gain their stamp and then hurriedly move
on, a smaller number decide to walk the entire 1,400 kilometre route, and
it is this group that Mendel focuses on. The journey is a difficult task,
requiring participants to hike up steep mountains and to negotiate long
narrow paths through dense woodland, sometimes in very poor weather. One
shot looks through the window of a rest stop as a typhoon rages outside!
The walk takes four to six weeks, and many walkers live off simple fare
and sleep rough along the way. Since pilgrims are a common sight along the
back-routes of the island, and are very noticeable, dressed in their white
smocks and carrying long walking sticks with bells attached to ward off
the snakes, local people are usually very generous and hospitable,
offering small gifts of food and drink as o-settai, and sometimes
even opening up their homes for pilgrims to sleep the night. Indeed, a
small number have become so absorbed in the act of being a pilgrim and
in being immersed in pilgrimage society that it has become their life's purpose.
One interviewee that we spend some time with is an older man who has done
that, earning his keep by helping out at a pilgrimage hostel in between
long periods walking the route.
Despite its ancient origins in the journey around Shikoku made by Kōbo
Daishi, or Kūkai as he also known, and its religious foundations in the
Shingon Buddhist sect he founded, the pilgrimage is enjoying something of
a modern revival. From those searching for some inner meaning while living
within the rising tide of sterile consumerism, through those looking to
discover and renew their self-identity, to those wishing to commune more
deeply with nature and with others, the pilgrimage attracts young and old,
and men and women, alike; many of whom express a sense of inner emptiness,
or even some deep dissatisfaction with the circumstances of their lives,
and want to use the pilgrimage as an opportunity for fundamental change.
Others, such as the aforementioned young man, walk the route seeking
solace from the grief of a loved one passed away, or wish to make amends
for past errors. Mendel is therefore keen to steer a balanced path between
the pilgrimage's religiosity, its spirituality, and its emotionality, and
in interview in preparation for this review, Mendel compares the Shikoku
pilgrimage to both the Camino Santiago in southern Europe and the
increasingly popular backpacking experience of independent travellers.
Searching for inner meaning may or may not involve religion and,
accordingly, what constitutes religion and religious experience are
therefore also questions that inform the subtext of the film.
The Shikoku pilgrimage is a very social event, both for participants and
locals, and conversation often centres on the differing motivations that
each pilgrim brings to the journey, as well as revolving around analysing
and describing events that happen along the way. It is therefore an
intense experience for those that are brave enough to embark on the
journey, and Mendel does a fine job at drawing on this intensity to reveal
the logic of each person's journey. The film is beautiful to watch,
capturing the sounds of the countryside, the variety of scenes that
pilgrims encounter, and the peaceful temple sites. The interview segments
are informative and interesting, giving us depth while allowing the viewer
gradually to construct his or her own judgments. And the ending is
skilfully done, providing a sudden jolt back into real life and then
returning to the young man in his apartment.
Having already been shown at numerous ethnographic film festivals since
its release in 2006, Arukihenro will be screened at the
Anniversary of the National Museum of Ethnology (Minpaku) Film Festival
in Osaka on 10 February 2008. This is a fitting tribute to a fine
piece of ethnographic film making and to what can be done, even with
relatively modest means, with a good subject and a passionate commitment
to telling a story.
All things considered, Arukihenro is an absorbing and intriguing
journey into the inner lives of Japanese people today, and is an excellent
representation of the complex and contradictory soul of modern Japan.
Peter Matanle is Lecturer in Japanese studies at the
School of East Asian Studies (SEAS), University
of Sheffield. He is the author of several publications in the sociology
of work in Japan, including Japanese Capitalism and Modernity in a Global
Era (Routledge, 2003) and Perspectives on Work, Employment and
Society in Japan (Co-edited with Wim Lunsing, Palgrave, 2006). He is the general editor of
the electronic journal of contemporary japanese
e-mail the Author
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Copyright: Peter Matanle
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