Upcoming Screenings

Check back here for future screenings

Past Screenings


Tuesday June 5th, 2012

Buddhadasa Indapanno Archives
Bangkok, Thailand

Opening night. Continues until June 10th.

Further details to be announced shortly.

Saturday May 5th, 2012

Buddhist Film Festival HK
Hong Kong

Asia Society, 9 Justice Drive, Admiralty, HK.


Tickets are HK$ 55 for Asia Society members; HK$ 65 for non-members; and HK$ 30 for seniors, students and individuals with disabilities.

This screening is part of the International Buddhist Film Festival Hong Kong 2012, the first such festival to be held in Hong Kong.

Photo of Wan Chai by HeroicLife on Flickr.

Friday March 23rd, 2012

Shugendo Film Festival
London, UK

School of Oriental and African Studies
University of London

Featuring screenings of Where Mountains Fly by Carina and Sandra Roth & Akinomine (Autumn Peak) by Kitamura Minao.

Time and Venue TBA

Wednesday March 21st, 2012

Buddhist Film Festival HK
Hong Kong

Asia Society, 9 Justice Drive, Admiralty, HK.


Tickets are HK$ 55 for Asia Society members; HK$ 65 for non-members; and HK$ 30 for seniors, students and individuals with disabilities.

This screening is part of the International Buddhist Film Festival Hong Kong 2012, the first such festival to be held in Hong Kong.

Photo of Wan Chai by HeroicLife on Flickr.

Sunday October 2nd, 2011

Buddhist Film Festival Europe
Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Theater De Balie, Amsterdam.

9:00 PM

Saturday April 2nd, 2011

Association of Asian Studies Annual Meeting
Honolulu, Hawaii

Asian Education Media Services Video Program
Emalani Theater, Honolulu Convention Center

10:50 AM

From The Newsroom


New Website


Today, we unveil a new website. Please explore and let us know what you think!

David W. Plath Media Award

Shugendō Now has won an award from the Society for East Asian Anthropology. Today, we gratefully received the David W. Plath Media Award for best educational documentary. Here’s what the committee had to say about our film.

“This documentary has much to commend it, particularly the beautiful cinematography and variety of characters who we meet. The visual juxtapositions between urban and rural settings are striking. While the stories of individual practitioners and their motivations behind turning to Shugendō are interesting particularly when rendered in their own words, the real strength of the film is what the viewer gleans about the religious leaders in the Kumano mountains. The directors’ long term relationship with Kosho results in our seeing multiple aspects of his life and his intermingling of sacred and profound rituals.”


Advanced Screening & Fundraiser


On the 13 August, 2009, we held a private screening party and fundraiser for our production crew, friends and family at the Cinémathèque québécoise in Montréal. To those of you who traveled great distances to be present for this special occasion—we are so happy you could join us. Thank you for making the journey. We are grateful to our generous sponsors, volunteer staff, cast and crew, and all of you who attended. Thank you to Rotem for making sure everything went smoothly and on time; Adam Thompson for photography; and Amy Miller for prep and planning. Special thanks to Uchiyama Ritsuko-san for bringing a touch of elegance and the taste of her delicious Japanese tea to the occasion and to Tateishi Kôshô-san for his evocative calligraphy. Kôshô-san was pleased to know all five pieces have found lovely new homes in Canada. We will send him the proceeds from the silent auction to support his activities at his temple and practice site The Forest of Mountain Learning. All artists and musicians who contributed their talents to the film will be paid from the proceeds from ticket sales and we are well on our way to producing the first batch of DVDs this fall. We are grateful for everyone’s enthusiasm and support and appreciate very much all the critical and constructive feedback. As ever we are happy to hear your responses to the film.

Jean-Marc and Mark
Thank you to our wonderful sponsors:

Ritsuko Uchiyama – Collection du Japon

Hugo Americi – Camellia Sinensis Maison de Thé

Lorraine Pritchard & Stan Phillips – Au Papier Japonais

Tom McKendy, Dean of General Education – John Abbott College



Kevin Taylor – Asian Educational Media Services

Shugendō Now is a documentary that walks the line between illustrating transcendent spiritual practice and the everyday “world of desires and illusions.” It is clear from the very beginning that nature holds a prominent role in the film. The film follows a pilgrimage of lay practitioners mostly from the urban environments of Tokyo and Osaka. Guided by Tanaka Riten from Kimpusen-ji temple, the pilgrims, in a practice called the Lotus Ascent, ascend Mt. Ōmine, one of Japan’s sacred mountains. Commenting on the effort to invite more people to practice shugyō (ascetic practice), the Shugendo priest observes “that with the increase in participation by everyday people, we’ve seen a decline in participation by more seasoned ascetic practitioners.” As the film follows the pilgrimage we are given a glimpse into the private lives of both lay people and mountain ascetics.

Tateishi Kōshō, both a mountain ascetic and a family man, functions as the film’s central figure and the head of his own temple Sangakurin, or Forest of Mountain Learning. Kōshō-san takes the viewer to environmental cleanup sites and introduces his eco-logic philosophy; a philosophy of sustainability, awareness, and purification. Although Kōshō-san is highly disciplined and serious, we also see him fully engaged in the everyday life of friends and family. His personality shines throughout and we easily believe that this man is a perfect example of what a Shugendō practitioner aspires to achieve. The ascetic practices of the Shugendō lay people, most of whom are from large cities, help them gain insight into the void formed by their alienation from nature. Miyamoto-san comes to understand how his concrete business is dangerous to people and the environment; Suzuki-san heals her shattered nerves from the stress of the business world; and many other followers reveal the ways mountain worship has personally affected their lives and bestowed a sense of fulfillment by reconnecting them with nature.

The film, while wonderfully refreshing, challenges the viewer by asking him to remain alert while simultaneously surrendering to the ephemeral moments between its chapters. The relaxing music and picturesque scenery risk lulling the viewer into a dreamlike state which threatens to dull one’s attentiveness to the delicately woven story of the interconnectedness of nature and society. Perhaps that is what the film in fact intends. This film is more than a voyeuristic documentary about monks on a spiritual pilgrimage; it invites the viewer to join in and take part in the journey.

I appreciated this aspect of the film because we see both sides of the ascetic life: the pilgrimage as documented in the Lotus Ascent, coupled with everyday life, as demonstrated in a wonderful chapter with Kōshō-san called “Cooking Show.” In this scene, Kōshō-san takes a break from his daily regimen to prepare a vegetarian dinner for his guests while drinking sake and joking with the film crew. Scenes such as this in conjunction with a brief glimpse into the lives of other lay practitioners gently challenge our preconceived notions of what we may think an ascetic life means.

Shugendō Now could be used by college and some high school educators to highlight either the history and syncretic nature of Japanese religions, or Japan’s environmental concerns. This full-length version is divided in twenty-eight short chapters making chapter selection during class viewing manageable when the full ninety minutes are unavailable. There are also two educator versions, each 45 minutes in length, one focusing on the religious pilgrimage, the other on nature and the environment.

Kevin Taylor is a graduate student studying Japanese religions and ecology in the department of East Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Illinois. He also has a Master of Arts in Philosophy from Southern Illinois University with a concentration in Buddhist philosophy.

Heather Blair – Journal of Buddhist Ethics

This provocative and rather unconventional film opens up a fascinating corner of Japanese religious practice to a general audience. A well executed documentary, Shugendō Now includes compelling footage and avoids heavy-handed voice-overs, presenting viewers with conceptual juxtapositions that should provoke discussion in or out of the classroom.

The film is quite accessible, and viewers may choose to play the voiceovers and sub-titles in English, French, Spanish, or Japanese.

As the title clearly indicates, the film’s topic is contemporary Shugendō, but for many potential viewers, that may bear some explanation. Appropriately enough, the filmmakers, Mark McGuire and Jean-Marc Abela, begin with their own gloss (and I quote from the English sub-titles): “The Yamabushi are those who enter the mountain to seek experiential truth. They perform austerities and ritual actions adopted from Shamanism, the kami tradition, Esoteric Buddhism and Daoism. This syncretic tradition is called Shugendō, ‘The Way of Acquiring Power.’” “The mountain” mentioned in this rather romantic definition refers here to the Ōmine range, and specifically to two sites within it, Kumano and Mt. Ōmine (1719 m, also known as Sanjōgatake or Kinpusen, alt. Kimbusen). Collectively, the Ōmine mountains tend to be viewed as the cradle of Shugendō, which coalesced as an organized religious movement during the Kamakura period (1185-1333). History is not discussed in the film, however, and geography is treated only in the most impressionistic fashion. At different points in the narrative, we are given our locations through slow pans over reproductions of landscape paintings, and through shots of the Womb-realm and Vajra-realm mandalas. The filmmakers are to be commended for leaving viewers to draw their own conclusions, but at times their approach is problematic, as it is here. Since the twelfth century or so, the Ōmine mountains have often been interpreted as mandalas, but how many viewers will know this, given that it is not explained in the film? Some viewers may justifiably feel unmoored in terms of context, while others may draw generalizing conclusions from what are really quite specific data.

The big question—and it is a good one—that Shugendō Now raises is how religious practice in the mountains fits into the contemporary lives of religious practitioners. Through much of the film, this question remains implicit, though it is spelled out clearly enough on the DVD jacket. And yet the filmmakers make their point quite clearly through visual and aural techniques. They routinely intercut footage of the mountains with ultra-urban scenes, and they combine footage from one source with soundtracking from another (for instance, nature-shots maybe soundtracked with traffic noise, or a cityscape with sutra-chanting). These strategies pose questions about how two categories of place, activity, and experience relate to each other, but they also push an answer rooted in the principle of non-duality. Happily, the film provides enough material for viewers to generate their own interpretive solutions, and for those interested in showing this documentary in the classroom, the film should provide fertile ground for discussion among students.

Although Shugendō Now introduces a number of yamabushi and other individuals, it is mostly focalized through three men, Tateishi Kōshō, Miyamoto Yasuhiko, and Fujie Noritoshi (note that names are given in Japanese order, surname first). Fujie-san, the youngest of the three and the newest to Shugendō, owns a nightclub in Osaka. We are treated to scenes of his life at work and at home with his family, as well as to footage of his first outing as a yamabushi. Fujie-san participates in the spring “Lotus Ascent” of Mt. Ōmine, a group pilgrimage that is open to society’s male rank and file. (Mt. Ōmine, as becomes clear in a brief scene partway through the film, is closed to women.) For Fujie-san, the Lotus Ascent means an entry into a radically different physical and social space, though what kind of leverage that may give him in his daily life is a question that the film leaves open to our speculation.

The second main character, Miyamoto-san, is a self-made concrete tycoon of Korean descent. He offers no comment on how he became involved in Shugendō, but like many yamabushi, he appears to participate regularly in group pilgrimages, while leading a regular life as a layman for most of the year. That said, Miyamoto-san is quite clear that his involvement in Shugendō has helped him to “realize the importance of nature, more so than the average person,” and that this has led him to reassess his chosen profession. As a result, a voice-over explains, he is “bringing together partners to invest in technologies that will clean up the industrial process.” We do not discover what those technologies may be, but the camera lingers on Miyamoto-san’s large SUV then cuts to a shot of him climbing Mt. Ōmine, and we find ourselves wondering about just what the connections between Shugendō and environmentalism might be.

Most viewers will probably find the third character, Tateishi Koshō, the most interesting. Charismatic and deeply counter-cultural in his inclinations, Kōshō trained as a Buddhist monk at Kinpusenji, a large temple in Yoshino with long and strong ties to Shugendō. Since then, Kōshō has set out on his own, and has developed his own center of worship, the Sangakurin, in Kumano, where he combines traditional mountain practices with an environmentalist agenda. While Fujie-san isa novice and Miyamoto-san a more dedicated practitioner, Kōshō is an ordained religious specialist with parishioners of his own. We see him conducting rituals on behalf of his followers and having fun with his family; we hear him discussing his religious practices, and telling of his efforts to clean up local pollution problems. Not least because he is socharming, Kōshō’s advocacy of a lifestyle rooted in self-sufficiency, sustainability, and religious practice is likely to inspire viewers. In fact, we watch him interact on-screen with a young couple who have decided to move to Kumano to live off the land, in part due to his encouragement. Kōshō provides a riveting example of what a yamabushi can be—a beloved member of his community, a religious leader, and an environmental activist—but he is also quite exceptional.

No film can (or should!) do everything, but it is worth noting that Shugendō Now does not include the voices of three major groups. First and most roblematically, women play only very minor roles in the film. Rika, Kōshō’s wife, and several other women do drift in and out of scenes around Kumano, and in a three-minute passage devoted to her, Rika relates the hair-raising story of a bad fall she took while on a solo trip on the Kumano pilgrimage trail. However, we have little sense of how Rika’s religious life plays out today, or how women do (not) fit into contemporary religious practice in the Ōmine range. In fact, women are quite active in Shugendō nowadays, even in Ōmine, but they are less visible than their male counterparts and their position can be quite ambiguous. Although the camera lingers on angry graffiti at a gate marking one of the boundaries in the “no-women zone” around Mt. Ōmine, the issue of the gender-based ban receives no commentary here but silence. To my mind, this is a serious lack, made more troublesome by the fact that it is women who deliver the voice-overs, as though to suggest that a “feminine” interpretive agency is at work in a film that has been made mostly by men.

Second, with the exception of some short shots and soundtracking from one of the senior monks at Kinpusenji, men who fill high-level posts in Shugendō and closely related Buddhist organizations do not play a major role in the film. Nonetheless, these men lay down and transmit orthodoxy and orthopraxy, and therefore do much to structure the experiences of even casual participants in Shugendō activities. By steering away from informants with high status within Shugendō hierarchies, the film presents a decidedly non-institutional view of Shugendō, though this may not be obvious to many viewers.

Third and finally, although members of the film crew do appear peripherally in several scenes, they never face the camera, nor do they speak of or for themselves. I suspect that this is an aesthetic choice as much as anything else, but the question of what it means to yamabushi to be observed, and to be observed by foreigners, might well be worth some discussion.

All told, I highly recommend this film for inclusion in university collections and for private use. It is my understanding that the filmmakers are currently working on two 45-minute cuts, which will be easier to schedule into conventional university courses than the current 88-minute version. In either format, the film would work well in courses on East Asian and Japanese religions, as well as on Buddhism, the environment and religion, and even new religions movements. Most likely its primary strength will be its potential for generating discussion among students, though it could also fruitfully be used as a target for analytical writing assignments. It should not be imagined, however, that this film provides an introduction to the history, sociology, or even the major practices of Shugendō. In most classrooms, it will work best with other lectures and readings.

Volume 18, 2011 ISSN 1076-900

William Londo – Education About Asia

As the title of this documentary suggests, Shugendō Now examines the state of Shugendō practice today as practiced by both professional practitioners, known as yamabushi, and ordinary Japanese people. The film begins by explaining that Yamabushi are those who enter the mountain to seek experiential truth. They perform austerities and ritual actions adopted from shamanism, the kami tradition, Esoteric Buddhism, and Dao- ism. This syncretic tradition is called Shugendō, “The Way of Acquiring Power.”

This description of Shugendō is about the best one can manage in a few words, and as the documentary amply portrays, it is a tradition that is clearly rooted in ascetic practices in natural places.

Early on we meet Tateishi Kōshō, a yamabushi who lives and practices in the vicinity of Mount Ōmine, located in central Japan near the city of Nara. Mount Ōmine is the major, but not only, sacred mountain of the Shugendō tradition. Kōshō-san lives in a natural environment, carries out ascetic practices for those who wish them (including the “bee appeasement” ceremony, or hachi kuyō), and teaches laypeople the values of Shugendō, but he nonetheless lives in a house and possesses all of the accoutrements a middle-class Japanese person expects. He also trains devo- tees seeking to become yamabushi. We meet one, Ryō-kun, as we hear him chanting the hannya shingyō or Heart Sutra and then commenting on his experience of it. He confesses that he doesn’t “know the meaning of the sutra or even understand its contents,” but that when he chants it continuously, “the vibration of my voice and the way I exhale feels good.” Here the filmmakers, without explicit comment, reveal a fundamental aspect of Japanese religiosity: that what matters is not doctrine, but practice and the feeling of well-being that results from practice. It is for this reason that when Japanese people are asked if they are religious, they usually reply “no,” for they understand “religion” to be a set of organized doctrines, a belief in which yields a specified outcome.

This is not to say that religious practices in Japan lack doctrinal underpinning. Viewers familiar with Buddhism in particular will recognize the strong influence of Japanese esoteric Buddhism in references to the Sun Buddha (or cosmic Buddha Dainichi) and the various esoteric Buddhist rituals. As the presentation stresses, Shugendō does in fact seek to express reverence for the Shinto kami and Buddhas, but in the video, few kami, or Japanese deities, are encountered. The one notable exception is the deity Zao Gongen. Zao Gongen is not a kami in the ordinary sense, but rather something of a hybrid figure between a kami and a guardian deity of Buddhism. The problem faced by the filmmakers here may be that the kinds of kami one would encounter in a Shugendō setting would be those associated with natural formations and phenomena such as mountains or waterfalls. Their divine nature is understood but often left undesignated.

The film is interspersed with scenes from a pilgrimage up Mount Ōmine taken by a group of laypersons, with special attention to the experiences of a few of the participants, notably Miyamoto-san, owner of a cement company, and Fujii-san, who runs a nightclub in Osaka. Miyamoto-san alerts Fujii-san of the opportunity to participate in the pilgrimage, but the fundamental motivations of each for participating are left unclear. In chapter twenty, Miyamoto-san says,

What we learn from nature is how small we humans are and how vast the spirit is. This project is very different from my usual work. Rather than call it a departure, let’s say it’s karma.

As Miyamoto-san speaks, images of him at his company and the retaining walls his company might have supplied concrete for are intercut with scenes of the pilgrims climbing Mount Ōmine, seeming to suggest that his spiritual quest is not without its contradictions. Visitors to Japan will be well acquainted with these retaining walls that cover the sides of many mountains to prevent rockslides onto roads and into neighborhoods and make the “natural” decidedly less so.

At the same time, we learn that Miyamoto-san takes environmental preservation very seriously, and he is working to develop cement production processes that produce less harmful waste in the environment. Other sections of the movie show Tateishi-san describing his environmental activism, including organizing people in the Yoshino area, where Mount Ōmine is located, advocating for the cleanup of tatami (traditional Japanese floor mats) that had been dumped in some of the local valleys in the af- termath of the 1995 Kobe earthquake. The film also depicts Tateshi-san and his associates removing junk cars and other scrap iron from some of the waterfall-fed ponds in the area that serve as pilgrimage destinations.

All of the pilgrims portrayed in the movie express a deep concern for and interest in the natural world, but viewers should not be left with the impression that environmental concern in Japan arises only, or even primarily, from religious concerns. Despite claims to the contrary, environmental concern is not particularly more or less widespread in Japan than anywhere else. Most Japanese people who do take up environmental concerns do so because of clear negative impacts they observe or experience. Hiking in the woods is popular in Japan, but most such hikes take place on well-traveled, paved trails on sunny Saturdays during day-trips from the city. Few Japanese people are interested in encountering nature in the rigorous way required by the Mount Ōmine pilgrimage. Even Kōshō-san himself advocates not becoming “eco-fanatics” but “remain[ing] calm” so as to maintain communication with the world as it is, both urban and rural.

Since the film is approximately ninety minutes, it is probably too long to run in its entirety in most classrooms. However, the producers have organized the DVD into twenty-nine chapters, making it relatively easy to extract vignettes that may be useful in teaching about contemporary Japanese religiosity in particular. The “Bee Appeasement Ceremony” shown in chapter four, for example, nicely reflects the kind of this-worldly benefits Japanese commonly seek in religious rituals. Chapter fifteen, by contrast, portrays the experience of Suzuki-san, a lay Shugendō adherent, who is undertaking a mini-pilgrimage around the mountain. She embodies the somewhat atypical but not uncommon Japanese person who seeks religious fulfillment because of disillusionment with society. The film is visually beautiful, capturing some of the wonderful green spaces that Japan aficionados from overseas, too often city bound, long for and seek out whenever possible.

Education About Asia, Volume 15, number 3, p. 75,76

WILLIAM LONDO has a PhD in pre-modern Japanese history from the University of Michi- gan. He is an Instructor in the Department of History at Oakland University, Rochester Hills, Michigan. His research focuses on the early history of Mount Kōya, the most sacred site of Japanese Shingon Buddhism. While Associate Director of the Asian Studies Center at Michigan State University, he led a cross-cultural environmental studies program for high school students and teachers in Michigan Shiga Prefecture, Japan and also taught the Freeman Foundation-funded “Teaching About East Asia” seminars for teachers of grades six through twelve.

Barbara Ambros for H-Net

Shugendô Now is one of several recent documentaries on Shugendô including Kitamura Minao’s Shugen Hagurosan aki no mine (2005) and Sandra and Carina Roth’s Where mountains fly (2010). While each of these documentaries has its merits, Shugendô Now is the most accessible, especially for those hoping to use it in an English-speaking classroom. Its broad appeal is enhanced by the beauty of the cinematography, which makes the documentary truly outstanding. Shugendô Now covers two aspects of contemporary Shugendô practice: (1) life in the village as illustrated by the activities of Tateishi Kôshô, a modern-day yamabushi and environmental activist living in the Kumano mountains, and his devotees; and (2) practice in the mountains demonstrated through the annual ascent of Mt. Ômine organized by the Shugendô temple, Kinpusenji, and its abbot, Tanaka Riten.

The film cuts back and forth between these two sides of contemporary Shugendô as it follows a wide variety of individual practitioners (though not necessarily in that order): Kôshô and his wife, Rika; Inoue Ryô, Kôshô’s apprentice disciple and an aspiring musician; Okuno Atsuko and Sasamoto Kazuya, who moved from Chiba to Kumano to follow Kôshô’s footsteps to become organic farmers; Sakata Yutaka, one of Kôshô’s male followers at whose home Kôshô holds monthly prayer services; Suzuki Akiko, one of Kôshô’s female followers who found solace in the mountains from the stress and alienation caused by her office job in the city; Fujie Noritoshi (a nightclub owner from Osaka), Miyamoto Yasuhiko (a cement-factory owner also from Osaka), and Ôzaki Hiroshi (a Tokyo businessman), all three of whom participate in the ascent of Sanjôgatake; Iwagishi Shinsei, a shugenja who supports himself through the performance of appeasement rites and through part-time consulting work based on his engineering degree; and the young participants of a three-day camp for children at Kinpusenji, staffed by Shinsei. Through these interwoven stories, we begin to understand one of the film’s central messages: mountain practice and life in the village (or the city) are interrelated. The lessons learned in the mountains need to be implemented in ordinary daily activities.

The documentary deliberately avoids an analytical approach, which might easily become pedantic, but subtly points to tensions embedded in Shugendô practices through its poetic narrative and skillful cinematography. The striking aesthetic qualities of the film–from the hypnotic music of Manu Delago and the color-popping close-ups of small animals, plant life, and urban facades to mood-setting wide-angle panoramas (misty mountain forests, Kôshô pelted by the spraying force of a waterfall)–balance action shots and interviews. Thus viewers forget momentarily that they are watching am educational documentary. As the director, Jean-Marc Abela, notes on the accompanying Web site: “We present to you a film that doesn’t explain it but embodies it”.

Nevertheless, the film delicately comments on two areas of tension: Shugendô’s relationship with the environment and its complex attitudes toward gender. For instance, central Shugendô practices occur in the mountains and involve strenuous ascents of sacred peaks. In Shugendô, mountains are regarded as sites of rebirth and purity. Rituals of repentance such as being suspended off rocky cliffs (as during the group ascent of Sanjôgatake chronicled in film) are supposed to induce spiritual renewal. Sacred mountain sites incorporate waterfalls as places of purification. Often mountains are also the sources of streams, and it has been asserted that the control of mountain territory by Shugendô institutions is used to protect the sources of water, important for wet rice field cultivation in the valleys. In continuation of this tradition, Kôshô is clearly engaged in environmental activism. He cultivates his own organic vegetables and rice, inspiring his followers to attempt the same. He leads local clean-up projects to rid nearby waterfalls and mountainscapes of waste. The ecological message of Shugendô has also affected more casual practitioners. Mr. Miyamoto, the cement-factory owner, has developed a more environmentally conscious attitude toward his business as a result of his participation in the yearly ascent of Sanjôgatake.

Yet there are also tensions generated by the intersection of the realities of daily life and the ideals of the tradition. Cement factories unavoidably produce pollution. As Miyamoto-san puts it, “they are bad for humans, animals and trees,” yet he continues to run his business despite this knowledge. Shinsei derives income from conducting memorial rites for insects at an insect-extermination company (which, in contrast to bee keepers for whom Tateishi conducts similar rites, relies on killing insects rather than caring for them). Tanaka Riten, the abbot of Kinpusenji, notes the success of advertising the annual ascent to Sanjôgatake among the general public; yet this has led not only to a spike in participation but also to discontent among the more seasoned ascetics who complain about the lack of etiquette among the newcomers–illustrated by scenes in which the participants are shown smoking during a break in the mountain forests while the yamabushi silently look on or in which a physically unfit participant appears to treat the ascent like an ordinary hike and is admonished by the yamabushi for holding up the group.

And despite his environmentalist activism, Kôshô supports himself and his family by crafting conch-shell trumpets (horagai), which have their traditional place in Shugendô practice. However, nowadays conches are harvested, for the most part, far from Japan in the Indo-Pacific Ocean of Southeast Asia and are widely protected as an endangered species. The film visually points to the fact that the conch harvested for its shell, which Kôshô cuts and fits with metal mouthpieces, once was a living organism by juxtaposing that scene with the shot of a snail slowly creeping across a leaf.

The mountain forests themselves are not only symbols of a pristine environment: during the film’s finale, we see a terraced landscape of former rice fields turned into cedar timber plantations after World War II. The lyrical narration only hints at the destruction waged by the war and the ecological impact of this monoculture on the fauna and flora of the mountains. The eerie silence enveloping this industrial forest is palpable because it contrasts with Manu Delago’s lively beat underlying the preceding reprise of the main characters. It is this subtlety that gives the film its thought-provoking depth and prevents it from getting bogged down in tedious preaching.

The film uses a similar strategy to problematize issues of gender. Many of the male participants are shown to thrive in the all-male environment of the ascent to Sanjôgatake. As the film suggests, many participants have potentially troubled backgrounds, be it due to their occupations (e.g., a hostess club owner) or their ethnic heritage (e.g., an ethnically Korean cement-factory owner). The men are struggling to come to grips with their emotional lives, their social relationships, and their hectic work schedules. An all-male ascent provides a safe environment to face personal issues–illustrated in a climactic scene through the overlaying of Mr. Fujie dangling off a cliff and images of his family life in Osaka. Yet the film also shows that the all-male practice actively excludes women and that this exclusion is contested–as indicated by a shot of the graffiti (“Is this religios [sic] or just plain male chauvinism?”) on the sign explaining the boundary of the prohibition against women. Indeed, Japanese activists have periodically challenged the prohibition, particularly after UNESCO designated the location as a world-heritage site. But despite the inclusion of the graffiti, the filmmakers avoid taking sides in the debate. They again display their skill at subtle commentary. The shot of the graffiti is preceded by prolonged shot of the dilapidated lettering on the gate marking the boundary of the prohibition as the participants recite the Heart Sutra (which encapsulates the teaching of emptiness). The character nyo (“woman”) in nyonin kinsei (women excluded) is conspicuously missing from the inscription, making the observant viewer wonder if we are witnessing the result of mere decay or of active vandalism–and ironically turning the prohibition against women into a prohibition against all of humanity.

The subtle subversiveness of the film also takes the form of making the narrator female and thus symbolically taking a woman to the summit of Sanjôgatake along with the female viewers of the documentary. As a woman, I must admit that the sequence set on Sanjôgatake (including the ritual suspension from the cliff and the passage through a dark, narrow crevice) made me feel like a voyeur. I was keenly aware I was visually entering a place that I would not be allowed to enter physically and seeing someone I was not supposed to witness. This feeling is generated by camera’s perspective, which often shows the point of view of the participants–walking in a single file along mountain paths, climbing up cragged boulders, or squeezing through a dark cave–rather than the perspective of a third-party observer.

Furthermore, the documentary does not only chronicle the activities of the male practitioners on Sanjôgatake but also shows Kôshô’s female followers, from his wife to several middle-aged women devotees. They commission healing rituals, chant along during goma fire rituals, wander the mountains on their own or in small groups, slide down waterfalls under Kôshô’s direction, or blow their own conches. Their practices appear less regimented (and perhaps commodified) than the all-male ascent of Sanjôgatake though they are clearly no less demanding–as illustrated by the story of Rika’s accident while walking through the mountains (she lost several teeth and broke multiple bones).

These deliberate juxtapositions make this film a useful tool to stimulate discussion in the classroom. It forces students to critically confront their expectations of Shugendô as it is lived and practiced in contemporary Japan. Having used the film in two different courses, I can attest that it generated lively discussion among the students and piqued their interest in contemporary Japanese religions.

Nevertheless, I have found that students needed some additional background on the history of Shugendô, the symbolism of the Womb and Diamond World mandalas (which appear without much further explanation in the film), as well as the basic geography of the Yoshino-Kumano region. For instance, without knowledge of the concept of the mandalization of the Yoshino-Kumano mountain range–the Yoshino area being associated with the Diamond World Mandala and the Kumano area with the Womb World Mandala, both of which intersect at Ômine like a Venn diagram–students will not understand why the mandalas repeatedly appear in the film. In fact, the film’s use of the mandalas as transitions is quite clever. As the film segues from Kôshô’s temple located in direction of Kumano to the pilgrimage activities at Ômine, we first see the Womb World Mandala and then the Diamond World Mandala–a hint at the mandalization of the landscape. The mandalas further allude to the division into female (Womb World) and male (Diamond World) places of practice–Kôshô’s world is inclusive of female practitioners, unlike the exclusively male space of Sanjôgatake. When the direction of the transition is reversed, the order of the appearance of the mandalas is reversed as well.

Likewise, a basic explanation of the economic exchanges integral to religious rituals in Japan–including those performed by Kôshô and Shinsei–would help the students understand how modern-day shugenja support themselves. My students did not intuitively understand that Kôshô’s farming, the gifts he receives from devotees, Shinsei’s part-time job as a consultant, the performance of prayer rituals (appeasement rites, goma rituals, exorcisms, etc.), and Kôshô’s manufacturing of conch-shell trumpets all demonstrated how a contemporary shugenja made a living. Fortunately, the filmmakers plan to produce a study guide for the documentary, which will be available online on the accompanying Web site. This should make the documentary an even more successful teaching tool.

Instructors eager to use the film in the classroom will also be pleased to hear that the filmmakers are currently editing the documentary into two 45-minute versions, each of which will more conveniently fit into a single class period–thus facilitating in-class screening more easily. One, entitled “The Forest Of Mountain Learning” after Kôshô’s Sangakurin temple, will show Kôshô’s activities and those of his followers, whereas the other, entitled “The Lotus Ascent,” will focus on the ascent of Sanjôgatake. For viewers who prefer a more linear narrative that does not weave back and forth between locations, the two-part version may have its attractions. I am personally curious to see how the reshuffling of sequences will affect the above-mentioned central message of the film, namely that mountain practice and life in the village are interrelated.

Barbara Ambros (UNC-Chapel Hill)


Allen Johnson, San Francisco Chronicle

Shugendô Now: Film about a quiet peak experience

So what does a mountain in rural Japan have to do with us?

That’s the question Montreal filmmakers Mark Patrick McGuire and Jean-Marc Abela try to answer in their documentary, “Shugendô Now,” about a group of Japanese city dwellers from different walks of life who retreat to the mountain to rejuvenate themselves, performing traditional rituals related to shamanism, Shintô, Daoism and Tantric Buddhism.

“It is the story of an esoteric tradition, and it is in Japan,” McGuire said as he and Abela checked in via Skype, “but what we’d like people from all over the world to take from the film is our deep interconnection with the natural world, the importance of the natural world and an appreciation and gratitude for the blessings we have – our families, our relationships.”

The filmmakers will be in San Francisco tonight to introduce “Shugendô Now,” which kicks off the San Francisco leg of the International Buddhist Film Festival, running through Dec. 19 at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

It’s a good choice; their film is peaceful and meditative, a truly relaxing educational experience.

“One character in the film says the thing that’s really important is that you don’t become fanatics, because then you lose communication and alienate the people around you,” McGuire said. “Jean-Marc and I wanted to have a gentleness of approach, the Buddhist idea of teaching things to the level of the understanding of the person.”

Abela said he hopes the film helps those without a deep connection to nature take stock.

“We live in a time of environmental crisis,” he said. “The main character is an activist, and while he’s a traditionalist, his mission is to make things applicable to modern people living in the industrial age. To bring the heart and mind into wanting to change our habits.”

Playing at the International Buddhist Film Festival showcase runs through Dec. 19, 2010. The Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 701 Mission St., S.F. (415) 978-2700. www.ybca.org

-G. Allen Johnson, ajohnson@sfchronicle.com