Ubusuna: The Return of the Gods

“There is a crisis. The mountain is in trouble,” says Mamoru Fukasawa, the owner of a hot spring resort in Narada in Yamanashi — one of Japan’s remotest villages. It has the dubious honour of being home to a dam that once many years ago sunk the village in water. Though such problems are unlikely to happen today, he’s now concerned about deer overpopulation, low water levels in the river, and how the planting of larch has usurped the original forest. “What’s going to happen? I’m worried. I’m worried about the mountains.”

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Narada is just one of the stops for the Exploring Life with Forests Film Caravan Project, which was set up in early 2012 to travel around Japan filming communities around Japan’s mountains and forests. With funding from an Aichi EXPO 2005 development fund, the caravan is led by film director Mile Nagaoka and produced by the non-profit Green Valley in Kamiyama, in Tokushima prefecture on the island of Shikoku.

The filming and planning stretched over some twelve months, involving Nagaoka and a motley crew, which included an overseas guest filmmaker at each location of the caravan. With perspectives from Japanese, French, New Zealand, Singaporean, Malaysian and British participants, the resulting — excuse the pun — mountain of footage was then edited and compiled by Nagaoka. This became ‘Ubusuna’, a two-hour documentary film produced by Nagaoka and Tom Vincent (who is also editor-in-chief of PingMag), and that was screened at Dartington in the UK in May. There have also been some private screenings in Japan and I attended one held at Spiral recently.

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Ubusuna is a word with Shinto roots. It means the land where people were born and the kami (gods) that watch over them and their home. With Mt. Fuji’s recent and much-trumpeted recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, there is perhaps no better time for us to put aside tourist marketing slogans and nationalistic pride, and truly consider the future of Japan’s mountains and the communities that still reside there.

Sustainability is an issue more vital than ever in post-Fukushima Japan. All-electric mobility is now an affordable and attainable reality, but can Japan go back to a more eco-friendly way of making communities? Edo was at the time the largest city in the world — just as Tokyo boasts to be today — yet it was also surprisingly ecologically efficient. The Japanese excel at crafting small systems; Edo had one in place to recycle the historical metropolis’s garbage into fertilizer for farmland. Likewise the sadly disappearing satoyama style of mountain agriculture is a superb model of small-scale farming in tune with its surrounding resources.

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The situation in Narada is acute, though we need not get gloomy. The mountain communities are anything but lethargic. ‘Ubusuna’ introduces viewers to a series of locations very much off the beaten path, but very much worth the effort to get to them. For example, there is the village of Mogura, where the aging but sprightly locals put together a makeshift rain dance, and which seems to work too.

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Or there’s the nonagenarian Fumie Mochizuki in Inamata Village, who spends her days fending off wild boars, bears, monkeys, deer and any other creature that tries to sneak its way into her fields. Her arsenal includes hot peppers and burning log fires in oil drums. Mochizuki was pensive but pragmatic. “What they call a disappearing village is real. The population naturally goes down. If people who leave don’t come back, it’ll naturally disappear. Nothing to do but live with energy while you’re alive. No sense in moping.”

The people who appear in ‘Ubusuna’ are open to outsiders and happy to talk to the caravan. The camera-toting explorers even manage to stumble upon a non-Japanese, Mark Fennelly. He explains how he is part of a preservation group that teaches people in Kito, in Tokushima, about the job of the ippon nori, the pilots who rode on logs to steer them down the river after being carried down from the mountain on a special sled called a kinma. This was before the days of overhead cables, and it was a dangerous job that took a lot of skill. “When logging was big business here, this was the coolest job around,” Fennelly says in the film. “It was the job the most handsome guys did.”

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Kudaka Island in Okinawa is the only real place the caravan had trouble getting people to speak to them. They feared that if filmed, the camera might steal their soul. It sounds quaint, perhaps even backward, but the spiritual connection the islanders have with their land is sincere and rooted in a sense of gratitude for the riches of the ocean that give them abundant octopi and shellfish to eat. On Kudaka there is also no concept of private land. Everything belongs to everyone.

At times, the tales on Kudaka verged into chilling territory. Twice a year, the gods are said to come back down to Kudaka and then certain places are out of bounds, even to locals. “During that time, if you mistakenly ride your car or bike down there, you’ll wind up in the fields,” one of the islanders says. “The gods have right of way and you get pushed aside.” Strange taboos and antediluvian beliefs? Perhaps, yet who are we to say differently? Kudaka used to have a rite-of-passage called the Izaiho, where women over the age of thirty become priestess-cum-gods in a ceremony held once every twelve years. However, it has not been held since 1978. Somehow, though, one imagines the gods are still present on the island.

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The scholar David G Goodman looked at the angura (“underground”) Japanese theatre movement of the Sixties and Seventies, and noted an increased use of primitive tropes and shamanistic — but timeless — motifs. He described the art scene as “the return of the gods”. It seems that when there is a crisis of confidence or a need to re-ignite the sparks of inspiration, it pays dividends to go back to our roots. But for some people, the gods never went away in the first place.

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The western response to nature-based belief systems like Shinto is often to say it is “superstitious”. For westerners, logic dictates that humanity sits merely upon a “stage” built by nature. And yet, despite what you might think from looking at the “modernity” of life today in Japan, some communities still have a faith, albeit nonchalant, in something nebulous but nevertheless somehow “there” in the landscape. It’s not what people would define typically as a hard-and-fast religion, but Shinto and an everyday appreciation of kami is something that perhaps nearly all Japanese take for granted, whether in the city or countryside.

Before we start giving up in the face of the “inscrutable” Asian mindset, though, remember that people like Marvin Harris have demonstrated how it is possible to justify many apparently illogical traditions and taboos (e.g. Indian “cow love”) by showing that they actually often make good ecological sense for a community. However, we also need to resist that most western of urges — the will to explain, and explain everything.

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There are other dangers. Travel companies in Japan have made fortunes over the years through peddling romantic images of the furusato “home provinces”. It is all too easy to retreat into nostalgia and exoticism. ‘Ubusuna’ sits rather comfortably in the middle. The exotic is there, though not exoticism. Yamabushi mountain ascetics are shown traveling on pilgrimages but it feels ordinary, rather than overtly spiritual. “For Japanese people, the mountains represent a woman’s body. And inside that body is where babies are born,” as Fumihiro Hoshino, the yamabushi leader, pragmatically explains. The film is also a travelogue of sorts but its focus is not on the journey or the travelers themselves. It matter-of-factly jumps from location to location, a documentary in the true sense of “documenting”, unembellished and unhurried.

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This approach is reminiscent of another champion of Japanese rural customs, the ethnologist Tsuneichi Miyamoto. Miyamoto walked 100,000 miles around Japan over his lifetime, traveling to remote communities to listen to and record people’s stories. His down-to-earth but astute observations were collated together in 1960 to form his masterpiece, ‘The Forgotten Japanese’ (now available in a very readable translation from Stone Bridge Press). But are these communities being forgotten? Possibly not as much as we might fear.

Japan’s mountains and forests might well be in trouble, but there are still people living and working there, and the know-how — both old and new — is waiting to assist us. The Exploring Life with Forests Film Caravan Project is also continuing and has started filming footage of other rural communities around Japan. The gods, no doubt, will also be waiting to welcome the filmmakers.

Exploring Life with Forests Film Caravan Project https://www.facebook.com/lifeandforest

Green Valley and In Kamiyama
http://www.in-kamiyama.jp/en/gv/