Apr 3, '21

Carving the Divine

Carving the Divine

In Japan, the masters responsible for carving statues depicting buddhas and bodhisattvas are called Busshi. Through his documentary Carving the Divine, Yujiro Seki, a Japanese-born filmmaker, provides a deep dive into the lives of Busshi in contemporary Japan. Offering a rare and intimate look into the life and artistic process of modern-day Busshi, Carving the Divine follows a small group of masters and apprentices studying under grandmaster Kourin Saito. The practitioners of this 1400-year woodcarving lineage are at the heart of Japanese Mahayana Buddhism. The documentary is the first to focus so intensely on Japanese Buddhist sculptors. Seki has publicly revealed that making this documentary was a long, painful, heartbreaking journey. He talks more about his artistic processes and this beautiful subject with Luxeat.  

You mentioned that you have a love hate relationship with your movie, could you please tell us more?

First of all, to make a movie or documentary, you have an idea and a concept, but when you start, you realize that what you thought is much bigger than what you can do. So that’s the reason why it took six to seven years to put everything together. Now I have been working on promoting Carving the Divine at the film festivals and building my social media, which has taken me almost another three years. It’s almost a daily job. After working on one project for 10 years, people go crazy. So that is what I mean by a love hate relationship. Yes, it is my heart and soul, I truly believe in it, that’s why I fight for it every day, but at the same time I hate it.

Director Yujiro Seki

How did you come up with an idea 10 years ago?

The idea was…. I have to go back to when I was little. My father is a Buddhist furniture maker and Buddhist altar maker. Ever since I was little, I was surrounded with Buddhist objects. We went to different temples, we had different relationships with different kinds of priests. The environment was very special. But I didn’t think much about it, because it was just a family business.

Fast forward to when I was in high school, I made my first film, it was a detective comedy movie, popular culture. So, I finished the movie, and I fell in love with the process of movie making. I went to the US to study cinema at the University of California, Berkeley. There, I was able to see something of life outside Japan for the first time. When I was in Japan I was Japanese among many Japanese, so I didn’t think I was Japanese. So from outside of Japan, I was able to see Japan from an outside perspective, and see that the environment where I grew up was special.

I wanted to make something at least once, that means something.

After I finished my university, I worked in Los Angeles as a director of a video department in a design company. It was a good job, I was making videos for business, but initially, I was studying cinema, learning how to make movies that inspire people. So making movies for business was far from what I imagined. I wanted to make something at least once, that means something. I found the Buddhist sculptors of Japan to be a really amazing subject, so I came back to Japan and I started making the documentary “Carving the Divine”, which is how it started.

What is a shokunin for you? In the west, we’ve started to hear this word more and more, but I don’t think that we really grasp the concept of what it really is.

Shokunin literally means craftsman. Shokunin can do many things, it’s a profession of certain things. These professions come with a way of thinking, the mentality towards the work, towards how to respect the object, towards how to respect the masters, towards how to teach young people to carry the tradition to the next generation. It’s a very complicated subject. “Shokunin damashi” – the spirit of Shokunin – means that Shokunins are very proud of their profession and also their way of being. For Shokunin, their profession is more than a job that makes money. It’s a way of living their lives, always trying to find a way to improve themselves. I hope that makes sense?

Seki and Saito
Seki and Saito

It does… You explained it really well. Last time I spoke with Takaaki Sugita, the sushi master from Tokyo, he explained it the same way. He could spend his free time playing golf, but all his life is dedicated to his job. When I asked what you do during your free time, he said “well, I visit artisans who do tea cups, or suppliers, or anything that I need for my profession”. And then there was something really touching: “When I die, I don’t want to die as Sugita, I want to die as a sushi chef”.  And basically, his job has embodied him. So his job is first and then his life.

Yes, I understand, it’s very well said.
Like in the movie, I don’t want to spoil too much, but grand master Saito carves all the time. He carves until he goes to sleep, he carves for his clients, he carves for himself, so that is definitely shokunin spirit.

Not just anyone can go into the Busshi world, the world of Buddhist sculptures, it’s a very secret world, and also being able to see what’s going on behind the scenes.

And you are never as good today as you can be tomorrow, right? It’s a life-long learning process even if you are a senior master.

Absolutely. Maybe from the Western perspective it’s too extreme to think about not being good enough. I heard from Western people that you have to be happy with who you are. And that is great, that is a great concept that doesn’t apply to shokunin who says “it’s never enough”. I don’t know if it’s a good thing or a bad thing, but this is the mentality they have, always wanting to get better, no matter what.

So how did you find these guys? You mentioned that your father was a Bhuddist furniture maker, so you must have easily found them from your network, from your surroundings.

Yes, yes, pretty much, you’ve summarized it. You know, I wanted to make something that only I could make, and that means no one can repeat it. Not just anyone can go into the Busshi (Japanese sculptor specializing in Buddha statues) world, the world of Buddhist sculptures, it’s a very secret world, and also being able to see what’s going on behind the scenes. It wasn’t very difficult for me, because of my family connections. And when you watch the movie, you will see a monk chanting, they do incense burning ceremony and other things, you are not supposed to go to the altar area, but because of my family connection I was able to go inside and to shoot all that. 

And can you tell us more about a Busshi world? How secretive it is, all the traditions… Also maybe taboos, that you are not supposed to do.

We can leave the answer to all the viewers who will watch the movie. Basically I captured the essence of the Busshi world in the documentary. I can say things here, but don’t think it’s worth it, because seeing it is more convincing than just talking about it. That’s why I made the documentary.

Yamada Butsuzo
Yamada Butsuzo

One scene really marked me, when they tried to get the right smile of the sculpture. There were three sculptures that were put together, which showed that one smile was the right one, while the other wasn’t. That was very interesting… How would you know which smile is the right one?

In that case it was just up to the client. The monk wanted it in a certain way, the master prepared three ways and the client chose one. Again, it’s a profession, you make your customer happy, right?

How would you describe a successful Buddhist sculpture?

In the movie, they were creating a kind of a replica, the work they do has to resemble what has already been done. People always talk about the monk called “Enku,” who did have his own style, but generally speaking, Busshi’s work is to create statues very similar to what has been done in the past. So that is a good Buddhist statue in the Busshi world. This is not contemporary art where the art describes the artist, expresses the artist. This is not a work of renaissance, it’s not created from your imagination, nothing like that.

So there is no artistic expression whatsoever…

I don’t want to say ”whatsoever” because we are human beings, everyone has their individual style to some standard. There are also things that master Saito did, that are also very unique to his style too. So in the film you will see some of the statues look rough, they have unique styles, they don’t really follow the regular standard.

This is not contemporary art where the art describes the artist, expresses the artist. This is not a work of renaissance, it’s not created from your imagination, nothing like that.

So it’s not like people don’t still enjoy their own things, but when clients usually ask for something “make me bodhisattvas”, there is a standard you have to follow, they can’t add this or that, to make it look good or to make it look cute. There are always exceptions, but in the traditional speaking.

Carving the Divine

Buddhist sculptures have been carved for more than a millenium, and the style was set at the beginning?

There is no exact date but people at a certain point just said, hey, this is a standard. Of course, there are variations to the standard. Again, we are humans, we are not perfect, even master Saito says “I’m not comparable to our ancestors,” meaning that what was in the past was so perfect, he can’t even begin to reach their skills. I don’t know if he is just being humble or that’s the truth.  Usually, we always try to improve, improve, improve something we have already, right? When it comes to Buddhist statues in Japan, what happened in the past was so perfect, so that they can’t do what they did in the past.

We have already talked about what shokunin is. What is the most important for Busshi shokunin, is it skills and everything else?

Well, again, I think everything has to come together. There is not one thing that is the most important, as you can see that from the movie.,Yes, skills are important, you have to be able to learn the craft to be able to make the statues. Without skills, without training, you cannot make these statues, but the way you approach them is also very important. Like for example in the movie you can see an apprentice being scolded because he didn’t clean up after himself. So it seems that it’s nothing to do with statue-making, but with the fact that you have to clean up after yourself. You are learning how to make the statues, but cleaning up after yourself is also a reflection of making good statues.  

When it comes to Buddhist statues in Japan, what happened in the past was so perfect so that they can’t do what they did in the past.

You have to be respectful to your masters, because in the future you will be teaching young people, and the tradition of respect has to keep going. The way of living, so everything is important, everything is connected. So I think that’s the way of Busshi.

How long does it take to learn the craft? Or there is no limit?

It depends on the workshop and how each master decides, how many years of training he should go through. In some places, three years, in some places five years, in some places 10 years. But again, three or five years is not enough to be professional Busshi most of the time because they have such a limited time.  Five years to learn the craft, that is already an impossible task itself. That’s why the masters are very strict, because they know that after five years they have to be independent. And after five years they will think, “oh, I didn’t have enough training, I will ask my master if I could stay for a few more years…” Generally speaking, from what I have witnessed, you need at least 10 years. Some people learn slowly, some people can learn faster, and some people can’t learn at all, that is a brutal fact.

I really liked in the movie, when one young master, who seems to be a fun guy, he never smiles, cause he said “I can’t smile, because if I smile you will never learn”.

It’s interesting that people from different countries find funny things that we think they are not so funny. I think most Japanese people don’t think that that part of the movie is funny. They just agree, yes, it’s normal for us. Yes, you can’t laugh or smile, because if you smile people will not take you seriously, if you have certain professions in a Japanese culture. But it’s interesting, because every time when I show the movie to people from different cultures, they notice things that we don’t notice. This is one of them, I think it’s interesting.

Yes, you can’t laugh or smile, because if you smile people will not take you seriously, if you have certain professions in a Japanese culture.

There is one more thing which stood out for me while watching your documentary, which is the urgency. At the end you showed  Master Seki and their apprentices working at night making sculptures. Basically having no free time and dedicating all their lives for making statues. What is that sense of urgency? You have mentioned this concept in your movie. Why is it so important?

We just discussed a minute ago. If you don’t have a sense of urgency and aren’t willing to steal your master’s techniques as soon as possible, the time will pass and you will not learn anything or you will learn very little. You have three or five years to master one of the most difficult techniques in Japan. If you don’t have a sense of urgency, if you don’t give up everything, forget about your girlfriend or boyfriend, forget about a private life, forget about hobbies… If you don’t have the mentality, how can you learn it? That’s what he meant, I think.

Carving the Divine. Koun Bussho

How did it change your perception of Busshi after shooting the movie and spending a lot of time with these guys and ladies?

It’s not only seeing the Busshi world, it’s about learning about this Buddhist statue culture.  This is one of the most important legacies in Japan, no doubt. These statues have been in Japan for a long long time, 1400 years with Japanese people, so there must be a reason. It’s a spiritual, religious art that supports Japanese people. That’s why you see these statues everywhere, in streets, households, inside  the Buddhist altar, also in temples…  They are  everywhere. How can they not be important? But Modern Japanese people have become very secular and many of them don’t have a lot of respect for the things from the past, for spiritual and religious objects. These statues have so much wisdom. So as I studied statues and Buddhism and Busshi tradition, seeing how they make art and everything in the workshop, I realized that everything is interconnected.

If you don’t have a sense of urgency and aren’t willing to steal your master’s techniques as soon as possible, the time will pass and you will not learn anything or you will learn very little.

I have a lot of respect for people from different cultures, different religious and spiritual traditions. And some modern people have a difficult time respecting these spiritual traditions.  Many people  treat them as superstitions from the past. So, I think I have changed my perspective.  I believe that there must be something out there beyond what we can see or hear, beyond our life.  There is always a human struggle to express something that cannot be explained by ordinary knowledge.  I believe the art of Busshi tries to express that.  Different people from different cultures around the world do something similar.  I think there is a lot of emptiness in the world right now, because we failed to respect these kind of spiritual traditions.

What do you think is the future of the Busshi world? And how do you think it’s changing in accordance with the modern world? Is it changing? We talked a lot about how Busshi is about following and respecting the tradition. What do you think is the future?

That is a good question. As long as there is Buddhism in Japan, as long as there are temples, as long as there is a need for repairing the statues, Busshi probably will exist. If people fail to respect the tradition, lose religious identities, and only focus on what we can see, what we can hear, what we can taste, then there might be no Busshi anymore. Who knows…

What are your plans for the movie? Dates and places where it will be shown.

It’s already shown in the festivals.  Because of Covid there is a delay in the distribution process.  Hopefully next year we can finally distribute it. 

Just check my website where you can leave your email for more information, and also follow Instagram for updates.

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