Fwd: H-Japan (E): Film review of "Shinto" from Insight Media

Ono Seiko and Aaron Gerow onogerow at angel.ne.jp
Sat Jan 27 20:22:33 EST 2001

This is forwarded from H-Japan.  I thought some members might be 
interested.  By the way, the poster, John Nelson, was my wife's English 
teacher in high school.

---------------- Begin Forwarded Message ----------------
Date:        01.27  8:15 AM
Received:    01.28  10:04 AM
From:        H-Japan Editor, j-edit at mail.h-net.msu.edu
Reply-To:    H-NET/KIAPS List for Japanese History, H-JAPAN at H-NET.MSU.EDU
To:          H-JAPAN at H-NET.MSU.EDU

                              January 26, 2001

Date: Thu, 25 Jan 2001 14:48:31 -0800
From: John Nelson <nelsonj at usfca.edu>
Subject: film review of "Shinto" from Insight Media

(Having recently received an advertisement for "Videos on Religions" from
Insight Media, and seeing listed there a film I know something about, I'm
offering the following review in the "for-what-it's-worth" category.)

A Cautionary Tale and Subjective Review: Good Intentions vs. Economic
Realities in Educational Filmmaking---Shinto. Available from Insight 
$99.00, (1999).

	In order to set the stage for the following (admittedly biased)
review, please imagine first the following scenario:  one day from out of
the blue you are presented with the opportunity to participate in the
making of a film on your area of scholarly interest and expertise.  
suspicions are overcome when you learn that other scholars you know are
involved in the project as well as an Academy-award winning actor doing 
narration for the film.   Once completed, the film will be shown on PBS in
the U.S. as part of a thirteen-part series on "The World's Religions," as
well as in Western Europe and Australia, where rights have already been
signed.  Sound good?  Wait, there's more...

	To ensure your participation, the filmmaker not only wants to
interview you on camera but is anxious to use whatever film footage you 
have accumulated to illustrate the subject at hand.  Finally, he assures
you that you will be able to see an advance copy and have editorial input
before the final version is released for sale and distribution.   You 
receive any money but just think of the service you're providing to the
field, to advancing understanding about the topic as well as recognition 
your scholarly expertise, and, of course, your name in lights, or at least
in the credits whizzing by at the end of the film.

	You've probably surmised that what is to follow is a kind of
country-boy (bumpkin perhaps?)-meets-city-slicker confessional.   Head
lowered and hat in hand, I will be playing the role of that
well-intentioned yet naive bumpkin who never signed a contract, never for
an instant doubted that the filmmaker would not live up to his word, and
who hoped that the film would eliminate the critical need for  an
intelligent, visually-interesting, and accurate documentary on one of
Japan's most long-lived and pervasive religio-political traditions, 

	Well, it didn't happen.  If you can spend another three to four
minutes reading this subjective account, I'll tell you what went wrong and
why this film should stay off your  purchase list.

	Back in the late 1970's, the respected scholar of Japanese
religions, H. Byron Earhart, composed a narrative for an audio tape on
Japanese and world religions, which was then recorded by the actor Ben
Kingsley (before his fame in portraying Gandhi).  One of these tapes was
titled "Shinto," the narration for which both reads well and conveys a
great deal of complex information in a few short pages.

	Apparently, both Professor Earhart  and Mr. Kinglsey signed waivers
that permitted the production company to license and resell the material 
an opportunity arose in the future.  With a narrative already recorded and
a text at hand, Greenstar Television and Liberty International
Entertainment Incorporation secured the rights to this material.  All that
was needed was a filmmaker to "illustrate" the narrative, add a few extra
minutes of interviews or filler material, and presto!-- a thirteen-part
series, each around 52 minutes,  could be produced, broadcasting rights
sold, and advertisers procured for a total cost of $600,000--a bargain
compared with the $60,000 to $80,000 usually required for an hour's worth
of quality broadcasting.

	I always tell my students to say something positive first when
offering a critique and so I'll follow this advice first in praising the
text upon which the film "Shinto" is based.  Anyone familiar with Dr.
Earhart's scholarly articles and introductory textbooks on Japanese
religions knows he is a careful and thorough researcher.  Mr. Kingsley's
resonant voice amplifies the text to a dramatic level and, despite some
inadvertent  stumbles regarding Japanese terms, he articulates well the
various themes and issues of the text.  I'm sure it was a very helpful
audiocassette to many students when first distributed twenty years ago.

	As a film, however, I find myself challenged to find charitable
things to say.  If one sets aside its educational intent, parts of it are
pretty and interesting to watch because of the art, landscapes, and 
professionalism.  Its pace is unrelenting and, for this viewer, exhausting
because each key word in the text is illustrated on screen.  After the
first fifteen minutes, I felt pummeled by information and images, not all
of which complemented each other.

	In fact, there are so many glaring discrepancies between the text
and the attempt to illustrate it by a nonspecialist (who, for reasons only
he and the production company knows,  consulted neither with scholars nor
individuals familiar with Japanese culture and history) that it would be
perhaps most useful in a graduate seminar as an exercise in analysis and
critique: like a variation on a children's game, one could ask one's
students whether they could find the ten mistakes in this picture.

	As the narration begins, we learn that Shinto is part of the life
and culture and landscape of the Japanese people.  To illustrate this, the
director has chosen black and white footage from the early Showa period of
one of Japan's famous landscapes at Miyajima; men and women struggling 
ropes on a sandy beach are hauling in fishing nets while a folksong
provides background music.  The Japanese I've shown the film to all laugh
with incredulity at this juxtaposition of old footage, folksong, and
scholarly subject matter.  Hardly a propitious start to a complex and
challenging topic.

	Further attempts to illustrate the central topic leads to Chinese
ceramics meant to depict Japanese courtly and rural life,  a folding 
showing Europeans in Nagasaki illustrates a discussion about aspects of
Chinese culture that influenced Japanese society, Buddhist guardian 
depict "evil kami," current-day Eastern Orthodox priests are shown as
Christian missionaries of the 17th century, Itsukushima's famous
torii-gateway in the water is shown while the narrative discusses how
shrines were built overseas during Japan's occupation of surrounding
countries--and so on.

	To highlight only a couple examples, in a long passage on
Christianity in Japan (far longer than the film's contextualization of
Buddhism's history and influence), the narration is discussing the
persecution of missionaries.  But what we see on the screen is a group of
women dancing the awa-odori of Awaji island, then a group of smiling women
who work in teahouses, both  footage from the 1930's.  Mr. Kingsley's 
is grave and somber at this point, yet the images are frivolous and
disconnected with the topic of religious persecution.

	For examples of Shinto shrines, we first see the concrete pagoda of
San Francisco's Japantown, then Kiyomizu temple, Yasukuni shrine, and
finally the Ise grand shrines, none of which are particularly
representative of the kind of "Shinto" which the film takes as its subject
matter.   While the first two sites are obviously not "Shinto," both
Yasukuni shrine and the Ise shrines represent elite, politico-religious
institutions closely linked to both historical and ongoing nationalistic
and imperial agendas.

	Attempting to illustrate  one widespread cultural and social
practice having Shinto trappings--New Year's--leads to perhaps the biggest
faux pas of all.  As Mr. Kingsley informs us dramatically that the "single
most important Japanese festival is the celebration of the new year" we 
nothing of shrine visitations at the end of the year (hatsumode) but
instead plunge into a variety of summer festivals!  First is the Tenjin
matsuri in Osaka (August), then the Awa-odori of Awajishima (July/August),
then a brief interview with yours truly which, sandwiched between these
comically inappropriate examples of new year festivals, makes it seem as 
the "talking head" is also part of the problem.

	Progressing through various historical periods, the film eventually
turns to the war years.  Using American-made newsreel footage of late 
the director chooses to present the narration of this newsreel without any
mention of its historical context.  The viewer hears that Japan's
"fanatical suicide corps" was "no match for the Allies" (images of 
being shot down)  that "Japanese cruelty in Asia" was unsurpassed (Chinese
bodies in the street), that Japanese diplomats were double-crossing
cowards, and so forth.  The war footage is visually arresting, but coupled
with the propagandistic tone of the newsreel narrative and without any
effort to problematize or historicize the presentation , one wonders if 
filmmaker believes these stereotypical assertions, and wants the viewing
audience to do the same.

	When the narrative returns, the topic is new religions.  While
watching a procession from the "jidai matsuri" in Kyoto, a yearly event
intended to show famous personages and costumes from Kyoto's many
historical periods, the narrative discusses rapidly changing social
settings, charismatic religious leaders, and folk religious practices.  
idea of "living kami" brings the filmmaker to Konko-kyo and an interview
with the head priest of San Francisco's "church." This is followed by a
long ritual performance staged for the filmmaker's benefit, presented in
far more detail and at greater length than any "Shinto" ritual shown in 

	The closing comment about Shinto is that it "lives on in strange
ways--even when denied or neglected, it lives on."   The film is proof 
denial and neglect do not compromise the topic at hand, but this is not to
say that a class full of students forced to watch this film will fare the
same.  Both they, and the subject matter, deserve better.

John Nelson
Department of Theology and Religious Studies
University of San Francisco


John Nelson
Assistant Professor
Department of Theology and Religious Studies

University of San Francisco
2130 Fulton St.
San Francisco, Ca. 94117,  USA

tel. 415-422-5093

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