Searching for the Soul of Modern Japan

Peter Matanle, School of East Asian Studies, University of Sheffield [About | Email]

Volume 8, Issue 1 (Film review 1 in 2008). First published in ejcjs on 26 January 2008.

Arukihenro (2006)
Dir: Tommi Mendel
Language: English, 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 30th 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.

About the Author

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 studies.

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