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(cover picture) Abela, Jean-Marc & Mark Patrick McGuire
2010 Shugendo Now. Watertown, MA: Documentary Educational Resources.

Notes: DVD, 88 minutes
Reviewed 2 Sep 2012 by:
Jack David Eller <>
Community College of Denver, Denver, Colorado, USA
Medium: Film/Video
More poetic than analytical, this film explores how a group of modern Japanese people integrate the myriad ways mountain learning interacts with urban life. With intimate camera work and a sensual sound design the viewer is taken from deep within the Kumano mountains to the floating world of Osaka and Tokyo and back again.

ABSTRACT:    An evocative film conveys something of the sensory experience of the pilgrimage to Mt. Omine in Japan, where monks and modern urban people retreat for spiritual awareness and environmental respect.

Westerners are not the only people in search of meaning. In fact, the profusion of new religions in Japan during the twentieth century indicates that there is some serious searching going on in that society as well. Perhaps there is something about the modern, urban, corporate lifestyle that people find particularly unsatisfying. However, as "Shugendo Now" illustrates, modern pilgrims do not have to join new religions to find meaning in their lives; many old and established religions offer paths of enlightenment and life-enhancement that are increasingly available to the amateur or part-timer.

"Shugendo Now" is a lyrical, evocative film about Japanese folks, many from urban places, who commune with nature and spirit by climbing Mt. Omine. These pilgrims, calledYamabushi in the film, "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." Thus, Shugendo is a "syncretic tradition" and "the way of acquiring power." In the mountains, we learn, "one practices purification with constant seriousness." Accordingly, much of the film is calm nature scenes of forests, streams, frogs, spiders, etc.--the sort of 'natural religion' for which Japanese spirituality is famous--with soothing female narration.

The film offers a series of portraits of contemporary Japanese people, like the farmer who acknowledges that he does not understand the sutras but says that just chanting them with "the vibration of my voice and the way I exhale feels good." Another is a female beekeeper who feels that it is important to perform a bee-appeasement ritual to show appreciation for what the bees give us. Central, too, to this experience, is the conch shell horn, which intones the cosmic sounds.

The scene moves back and forth between the various characters and a pilgrimage ascent of Mt. Omine. We start with a parade/procession of floats, the sort seen in "Eight Million Gods: The Japanese Matsuri Festival" (reviewed elsewhere in ARD). A bonfire is set that "burns aways all passions and attachments to this world." Then we shift to an orientation class for the next day's Lotus Ascent, when laymen and monks will climb the mountain; the audience is told, "all those attachments you bring from the world of desires and illusions, throw them away."

Pilgrims set off before sunrise for the 14-hour, 26-kilometer climb. Scenes of the pilgrimage are interwoven with segments on calligraphy, Buddhist shrines, and the dormitory/hostel of Sanshu Sangakurin, in the forest of Mountain Learning. The film depicts some women receiving a service from a priest, as well as a successful businessman named Miyamoto (descendant of Koreans who were brought to work in Japan) who undertakes the spiritual journey. For as the narrator explains, "Giving large numbers of people a wide variety of thing to reflect upon, experience, and feel is a meaningful part of a religious tradition's mission." Ironically, the increase in public participation in the pilgrimage has been met with a decrease of participation among ascetics. One wonders whether this is religious progress or regress. As we come to understand, much of Shugendo and the pilgrimage is related to rather more modern concerns of environmentalism. For instance, one city woman has been walking in the woods for several days, trying to find balance and become more human. But the environment and balance are not merely individual matters. The film discusses a dump in the mountains where millions of tatami mats have been discarded. After local protest, the mats were removed and the site cleaned. Still, tons of trash, even an abandoned car, have been left on the Shugendo path—one price of modern cultural tourism. Thus, Shugendo is no longer quite traditional but has become something of an "eco-pilgrimage."

Later in the film we see children in a Buddhist temple service, as well as the "Three Day Monk" camp, where children have fun and even practice some austerities. And since there is more than one way to achieve enlightenment, we are also treated to some scenes of cooking as art and meditation.

Back on the pilgrimage, the climbers chant in unison to the beat of the monk-guide until they reach the "women boundary gate" (the point past which women may not venture). One or two men turn back before the steep climb ahead. The climactic moment, the moment of truth, comes when the pilgrims who have summitted the mountain are hung head-first over the cliff. The mountain, we learn, is the mother, and returning to her womb is rebirth. Apparently, hanging upside down over the abyss is like being reborn.

"Shugendo Now" is an interesting and appealing study of tradition and modernity, of spirituality and materialism—that is, the good kind of materialism, in which the material world matters and is to be respected and preserved. Since the film is a bit long for classroom use, there is a second "classroom" version on the disc, which rearranges and breaks the 28 chapters into two shorter films, "The Lotus Ascent" and "The Forest of Mountain Learning." There is also an additional 12 minutes of "frequently asked questions, answered by the filmmakers.

Level/Use: Suitable for high school classes and college courses in cultural anthropology, anthropology of religion, environmental anthropology, and Japan studies, as well as for general audiences.