H: I have known about the traditions of the shugenja, or yamabushi, since the late-1980s when I began practicing Zen and Aikido, and learning about the life and many influences of O-Sensei, Morihei Ueshiba, its founder. Like Shugendo, Ueshiba was influenced by many forces including the kami tradition, Japanese Vajrayana Buddhism, Zen, Daoism, even contemplative-esoteric Christianity, but also Shugendo. While it is not immediately obvious, the worldview of Aikido is shaped by Shugendo. Later, I encountered Shugendo as a topic in my undergraduate studies in Japanese religions.
It is fascinating to see these ancient traditions depicted on film, and a truly soul-stirring component is seeing modern people (many of them from highly-congested urban settings) taking part in pilgrimages, honoring nature, participating in a nature-based spirituality. What were your own personal impressions about these juxtapositions – ancient-modern, nature-technological, etc.?
J: I think we all have a deep connection with nature. That may sound like an obvious statement but in our modern and urban lifestyle, it needs to be stated. Of course, cities offer great cultural experiences and places of refuge, but nothing seems to compare to standing in a forest. The sounds, the vibrations, the smells, and the sight of it all, I think, bring great peace within all of us. Therefore, the people who live in highly congested urban settings have an even greater need to get out there and breathe the forest into their lives. Many viewers tell us after watching the film that they want to go for a walk outside the city and this is how we hoped people would react.
H: Like Shugendo’s own characteristic weaving of different facets together, your film does a magnificent job of weaving different elements: stunning footage of the natural world, documentation of a unique spiritual tradition, and investigating certain key questions. Was the theme of the film already in place at the outset, or did it organically evolve as you were documenting these traditions?
J: From the start of the project we wanted to weave together urban and natural spaces. The question that remained was how we would achieve this without hitting any of the clichés normally associated with Japan. The opening sequence was the scene used to explore this. I started editing it while shooting in Kumano.
Before I left Japan, I had several different versions of the opening. Returning home, I continued this exploration, from very drastic juxtapositions of images and sounds, but it never felt quite right until I decided to keep the sounds of nature throughout the opening sequence, which included scenes of cityscapes. When we watched it together, Mark instantly approved and observed that this was more in-line with our views on the subject: that nature is everywhere around us.
M: There were two important juxtapositions that we wished to highlight: that of the productive tension between the mountains and the city, and the different personalities, efforts, and intended audiences of our two main characters (Tateishi Kôshô and Tanaka Riten) as they sought to creatively re-invent the traditional practices for busy, urban people.
On the surface, these men are very different personalities, with different approaches, who, in turn, attract different individuals. However, at their core, what they are doing is very similar. As for how we illustrated these juxtapositions with our footage; that came together organically both during initial shooting and post-production. Jean-Marc is a highly intuitive, self-taught filmmaker with an excellent eye for detail and pattern, so I was comfortable giving him full creative decision-making power over the direction the film would take.