A documentary on Shugendo, part 2 – Buddhistdoor Global
The Engi Shozan, literally “Mountain Stories of Origin” is a Shugendo document dating from the 12th century. This document forms the basis of a documentary film created by two sisters, Carina and Sandra Roth, one of the few documentaries in English on the subject of Shugendo.
Buddhistdoor Global had the opportunity to speak with Carina and Sandra about making this documentary and their fieldwork in Japan. This is the second part of a two-part interview.
BD: How long did it take to make the film? How long have you spent in Japan?
Sandra: The footage was shot over six weeks during the summer of 2004. The making of the film then spanned the following years and was completed in 2010. A few months before it was completed, [researcher and academic] Mark McGuire got in touch with Carina, as he was finishing Shugendo Nowthe film he directed with Jean-Marc Abela.*
Carina: We then realized that the two films not only shared direct quotes from the Engi Shozan, but also one of their main protagonists, Tateishi Kosho. This exchange led not only to an ongoing friendship with Mark over the years, but also to participation in a Shugendo filmmaking workshop at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London, in the spring of 2011.
BDG: Do you have strong memories of your time in Japan during filming?
Sandra: For me, it’s the eventful circuit of the “47 waterfalls” that [Shugendo monk] We were taken by Tateishi Kosho which turned into an overnight stay on the mountain the same night a level six earthquake rocked the Kii Peninsula. This meant that when we came out of the forest the next day, the fire brigade and NHK [television news] were waiting for us.
What struck me the most was the constant unpredictability from the start of our journey: every day something new and unforeseen happened. The chain of cause and effect was as wacky and wacky as Engi Shozan script. It was really the basic concept of the film: everything that happened to us, we found an echo in the Shozan engI.
Carina: Another very busy moment was the evening we spent in a restaurant in the city of Shingu with a group of koshinto [ancient Shinto] specialists. It turned out that the restaurateur’s husband had filmed the last days of Ibuki Tomyo, a practitioner from Shugendo who had voluntarily starved himself to death a few years earlier. It was absolutely surreal to see these images and discuss them over an abundant and delicious meal.
Like Sandra, I really enjoyed being carried from moment to moment, never knowing what was going to happen next, and almost without pause. It was quite magical and also very tiring at times.
It was also interesting on another level, because we had to adapt to a change in our relationship as sisters. Sandra was filming and I was assisting and translating for her, which meant I didn’t have the same role as when I was doing research on my own. It was not always easy to think about being out of frame, or even not making noise during a conversation, especially in Japan, where any conversation is constantly punctuated by small vocal thanks.
BDG: What reactions have you received from people who have seen the film?
Sandra: The film is dense and requires some attention, so it can’t really be considered entertainment. As for the commissions, they mostly come from people directly interested in Shugendo, so the film lives on the research side.
Carina: Neither Sandra nor I have experience in film distribution. When the movie came out, we both had very young kids and were juggling between them and work, and for me, my thesis, so we didn’t even have time to figure out how to get the movie to a wider audience. . Distribution therefore remained very limited.
We were very happy to be able to show it even before it was completely finished, during the international Shugendo conference in 2008 organized by Bernard Faure, author and specialist in Asian religions, at Columbia University.
Paul Swanson, author and scholar of Japanese religions (Shugendo) and Buddhist studies, also included a kind appreciation of where the mountains fly in his review of three Shugendo films in one of the 2010 issues of Japanese Journal of Religious Studies (37/2).
BDG: Two women made this documentary about a society dominated by men, what reactions did you receive and how did you feel about this gender issue?
Sandra: Not only were we two gaijin, two strangers, but we were also two sisters. In a way, it allowed us to circumvent many hierarchical obstacles. We were in a kind of free zone which left us a space to move more or less freely. Our status also meant that we remained strangers. Also, since Shugendo is Carina’s research topic, some things didn’t need to be explained, which also gave us more leeway, and perhaps more horizontal access.
Carina: The issue of gender was not on our minds and we had no intention of approaching the contested discussion [of the exclusion of women] on Sanjogatake Peak, for example. The various beings that En no Gyoja encounters on his way to Kumano in the passages of Engi Shozan who are depicted in the film are indeed all demonic female beings, but the film does not dwell on the fact that they are women. The theme of the film is not the Okugake track, or even Shugendo in itselfbut rather the life and lives, religious and otherwise, that abound in the Omine Mountains.
BDG: Do you think this documentary contributed in any way to the revival of Shugendo?
Carina and Sandra: The film was never meant to promote or even introduce Shugendo to an international audience. It’s a film about experiences in the Japanese mountains, past and present.
Because of our increasingly urban way of life, for a large number of people, religious or spiritual practice in a natural environment, what is sometimes called eco-spirituality, is gaining in appeal with a share of dream exoticism too.
A few shots in where the mountains fly also show how our contemporary way of life and the imprints of man-made environments also encroach on nature: the pouring of concrete that drapes the sides of mountains, or when yamabushi talking on their smartphone, smoking while taking a break or eating candies wrapped in plastic.
One of the film’s main objectives was to question our relationship to nature and the invisible, and Shugendo is an excellent medium for doing so. Shugendo as a practice intrinsically awakens the imagination and the interest in looking at nature differently, intensely, which includes an almost fantastical dimension.
Carina Roth is a lecturer and research fellow at the Department of East Asian Studies and at the House of History of the University of Geneva and Switzerland. She specializes in the history and anthropology of Japanese religions and is one of the editors of the recently published volume Defining Shugendo: Critical Studies in Japanese Mountain Religion. She works on the figure of En no Gyoja as the founder of Shugendo, as well as on the international expansion and development of Japanese rituals around abortion and perinatal death (mizuko kuyo).
Sandra Roth is a visual artist and a graduate of the Beaux-Arts in Geneva. She specializes in animation as a documentary storytelling tool. where the mountains fly, the film in question here relies, for example, on animation for the narrative parts. As a graphic animator, she has also produced numerous animations and audiovisual projects for museums and Swiss television. His current projects include a film on international financial mechanisms.
To contact Carina and Sandra, send an e-mail: [email protected]
Images courtesy of Carina and Sandra Roth.
* Connecting the Past and Present of Shugendo – The Revival of Japan’s Ancient Mountain Ascetic Tradition Part Seven (BDG)
where the mountains fly
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Where the Mountains Fly: A Documentary on Shugendo, Part 1