DER Documentary

Shugend˘ Now

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by Jean-Marc Abela and Mark Patrick McGuire
color, 88 min, 2010 | Classroom Edition also available
Japanese, English, French, and Spanish
with English, French, or Spanish subtitles and narration

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How does one integrate lessons learned from nature in daily life?

This feature documentary is an experiential journey into the mystical practices of Japanese mountain asceticism. In Shugend˘ (The Way of Acquiring Power), practitioners perform ritual actions from shamanism, “Shint˘,” Daoism, and Tantric Buddhism. They seek experiential truth of the teachings during arduous climbs in sacred mountains. Through the peace and beauty of the natural world, practitioners purify the six roots of perception, revitalize their energy and reconnect with their truest nature — all while grasping the fundamental interconnectedness with nature and all sentient beings.

How does one return to the city after an enlightening experience in the mountains?

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 worlds of Osaka and Tokyo and back again.

Might the two be seen as one?

Related Resources
Study Guide
Filmmaker's thesis: From the City to the Mountain and Back Again by Mark Patrick McGuire | MORE INFO
Film's website:

Classroom Edition DVD (color, 42/48 min + 12 min extra feature)

This edition divides the feature film into two parts for easy classroom use and includes a Q&A with the filmmakers.

Part 1: The Lotus Ascent (color, 42 min) - preview coming soon
In The Lotus Ascent we accompany 120 male pilgrims from all walks of life on a 26 kilometer climb to the peak of Japan's Mt ďmine. This sacred mountain, off limits to women, is regarded as the home of divinities and Immortals as well as the mother's womb: a site of rebirth, catharsis, and healing. Returning with them to the sprawling metropolises they call home, we learn what motivates pilgrims and how they integrate lessons learned from nature in daily life. Our guide Tanaka Riten, a seasoned ascetic with intellectual credentials, media savvy, and a keen sense of humor, has made the traditional practices more accessible to lay people, boosting participation considerably. Yet attendance by more experienced ascetics has dropped. Wagering that the only way for a religious tradition to survive is to have the broadest possible membership, Tanaka believes his efforts have not been unsuccessful.

Part 2: The Forest of Mountain Learning (color, 48 min) - preview coming soon
Struggling to stay human, wishing to live "smelling the earth," and choosing between accounting or the artist's life: these are some of the motivations that attract visitors to The Forest of Mountain Learning. Charismatic priest Tateishi K˘sh˘ has established this rustic temple and training site as a space for individuals at a crossroads in their lives to contemplate Nature and "know their heart-mind." K˘sh˘'s musical and culinary virtuosity, colorful background, and wisdom gained from ascetic practices in rugged mountains make him an appealing conversation partner. But his disciplined practice and protection of the natural world from illegal dumping and gravel production earn him the respect and admiration of a global cohort of pilgrims.

FAQ with the Filmmakers (color, 12 min)
Questions and answers include:

  1. Can you tell us how this film came together?
  2. What is the relationship between priests Tanaka Riten & Tateishi K˘sh˘?
  3. Why are women prohibited from ascending the peak of Mt ďmine?
  4. How do Shugend˘ priests make a living?
  5. What are the paintings interwoven in the film?
  6. What is a kami?
  7. Why is it a problem to dump tatami mats in the mountains?
  8. What is the meaning and significance of a Shugend˘ practitioner's attire?
  9. How did you get those shots during the Lotus Ascent?
  10. How can I get Tateishi K˘sh˘'s tofu noodle recipe?
Shugend˘ Now is a beautifully filmed, aesthetically pleasing, and religiously challenging presentation of traditional ascetic practices… One learns not just about traditional Japanese religion, but how it is alive and fits into contemporary Japanese society, as well as its more cross-cultural appeal. It has stunning and well edited visuals, a fine and appealing sound track, and informative yet unobtrusive narration.” —Paul Swanson, Japanese Journal of Religious Studies
Shugend˘ Now is an in-depth observation of global awareness, but from an entirely different cultural perspective from that which we are accustomed… This is a beautiful, poetic film, free of preachiness and pretension, and it's sure to please the eco-conscious and the culturally curious alike.” — David Campeau, John Abbott College
“Ultimately, what I took away from this film is that even the busiest, most consumerist among us have a deep human need to recognize the sacredness of the environment, a truth the film addresses in a subtle, palatable way. And while the environmental message of the film may be its "heart," the great strength of Shugend˘ Now is its camera work.” — Meaghan Thurston, The Dominion
“The movie is filled with impressive visuals, from trees rhythmically swaying in the wind to reflections of cumulus clouds in pools of water… Shugend˘ Now ends as it began, with serene shots of nature. But in a way, the film has no beginning or end. Like the discipline of Shugend˘, it's endless, an ever-evolving way of being unbound by the temporal aspects of Earthly life.” — Luke Baynes, Burlington Movie Examiner
Shugendo Now is an interesting and appealing study of tradition and modernity… 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.” — Jack David Eller, Anthropology Review Database

Film Festivals, Screenings, Awards
Days of Ethnographic Cinema, Russia, 2012
The Inner Path Festival, New Delhi, India, 2012
International Buddhist Film Festival, Hong Kong Asia Center (Asian premiere), 2012
IBFF, Apollo Piccadilly Circus, London, 2012
IBFF, Bangkok, Thailand, 2012 Buddhist Film Festival Europe, Amsterdam, 2011
Association of Asian Studies Annual Meeting, Honolulu, Hawaii, 2011
Shugend˘ Film Festival, London, England, 2011
International Buddhist Film Festival, California, 2010
"Japanese Folk Religions" seminar, Harvard University, Reischauer Institute, Cambridge, 2010
Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, MontrÚal, 2010
Green Mountain Film Festival, Montpellier, VT, 2010
Festival international du film ethnographique du QuÚbec, 2010

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