Preaching from Pictures: A Japanese Mandala Produced and directed by David W. Plath


2006 , 119 minutes, color. Distributed by the Asian Educational Media Service, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 805 West Pennsylvania Avenue, MC-025, Urbana, IL 61801 ,

Preaching from Pictures succeeds in acquainting the viewer with an unfamiliar place, milieu, and archaic visual didactic technique. Using the intricately drawn contemporary Buddhist painting of the Kumano Kanjin Jikkai Mandala (“Mandala of the Ten Worlds”) as the focal piece of discussion, it interweaves snippets of the social and religious worlds of the residents of Edo (the former name for Tokyo), Japan's early modern capital city. Edo City was the seat of power for the Tokugawa Shogunate from the early 17th to the mid–19th centuries, and preeminent among some two hundred and fifty castle-towns built by daimyos and samurais during an extended period of peace. With a population approaching 1 million, it was probably the largest city in the world of its time.

Great strides in material prosperity not only saw the rise of urban social classes, but also a flourishing of novel modes of religious expressions. In Edo, we are told, “all of Japan was replicated” in terms of religious pilgrimage practices. For instance, the notion of utsushi (“mirror” or “reflection”), where miniature replicas of distant Buddhist and Shinto shrines or structures were built, enabled pilgrims to metaphorically worship Mount Fuji without having to leave Edo.

The Tokugawa Shogunate commissioned panoramic silk screens picturing the history, gaiety, and splendor of Edo's hierarchical social fabric. But in contrast to the Shogun paintings' this-worldly focus, the Jikkai Mandala refracts the arc of life through the Buddhist lens of karma, linking the here and now with the afterlives to come. This is visually illustrated by the painting's powerful symmetry in its depiction of time and space. Nonetheless, these pictures were mute, and required explication by itinerant preachers, which in this case were bikunis (nuns) from the Kumano sect. They preached and recited at roadsides and various public spaces of Edo, and even beyond the city boundaries into the countryside. In essence, the Jikkai Mandala drew ideas from Tendai Buddhism and Shugend mountain ascetics. It beckoned viewers and listeners to observe their minds (kanjin) by contemplating on the ten realms (jikkai) of existence, which include six courses of rebirths and four levels of enlightenment.

Aptly, the centerpiece of Preaching from Pictures is a fascinating exegetical tour of the many human figures, bodhisattvas, demons, and other sentient beings that populate the Jikkai Mandala by an unseen female narrator. We are told that a central motif linking all of these disparate entities is kokoro (“compassion”)—a heart with a right attitude will generate right actions, which will avoid the sufferings of the underworld. Drawing from Confucianist elements, the Jikkai Mandala also incorporates filial piety into its visual narrative of right action. The account is juxtaposed with short commentaries on daily life in Edo. In keeping with the sober tone of the Jikkai Mandala, the narration is terse and reflective, and is accompanied by minimalist Japanese music and Buddhist chants. This portion of the DVD lasts around 37 minutes.

A more substantial portion is found in an interactive section that is organized along three interlinked clusters. The first is a series of dyadic conversations (approximately 80 minutes) with American experts on Japanese history and Japanese religions. These are organized under the key headings of “religious practices,”“karma,”“life cycles,”“Edo's energy,”“filial piety,”“pilgrimage,” and “bikuni.” Each conversation is around 11 minutes. Under this cluster, a contemporary 17th-century text taken from a puppet drama known as the “Etoki sermon” is read aloud in Japanese, enhancing the aural sense of the Mandala's visual power.

Another section allows for a closer look at the images of maps, scripts, paintings, and photographs that have been editorially cut into the conversations. Finally, all the key terms used in the conversations are listed and explained in a glossary cluster. This arrangement, in effect, allows easy intertextual navigation into portions that may interest the viewer.

Using the Jikkai Mandala for preaching and proselytization purposes by kumano nuns fell out of fashion in the 1920s. We are told that one of the contributing factors to its demise is the advent of talking and moving pictures on big white screens. It is somewhat ironic that Preaching from Pictures draws from the powers of “new media” to reach a wider and uninitiated audience. Moreover, unlike the genre of an ethnographic documentary, which facilitates easier engagement, the subject matter of Japanese religious art is potentially distant to its viewers. Given that the documentary's key players are static and mute characters etched onto an archaic painting, the task of bringing these characters to life is more daunting, requiring not only the knowledge and enthusiasm of scholars, but also the communicative skills of the production team. Considering that the documentary is not commercially produced, Preaching from Pictures performs admirably well on all counts.

Thus, what it may lack in terms of pace, cinematic finesse, and expensive reenactments in commercial television documentaries such as one finds on The History Channel or Discovery, the video makes up in a scholarly and insightful exegesis of a visual aesthetics long since out of vogue. By the same token, because of the nature of the subject matter and tone of delivery, a degree of perseverance is demanded of the viewer in order to derive Preaching from Pictures' full didactic value.

As an aid to classroom teaching the documentary is invaluable. Its interactive section is especially suited to enhancing the viewer's grasp of the intersecting multiple worldviews that inform the Jikkai Mandala's cosmological politics. Thus, although it is not explicitly stated, Preaching from Pictures' subject matter resonates with visual anthropology insofar as it not only unpacks the visual aesthetics of Japanese Buddhism, but also provides empirical evidence for theorizing about the historical and cultural specificities of the visual.

Preaching from Pictures would be of interest not only to students of Japanese religion and religious studies, but also to students interested in understanding imagery's social power to reimagine and reorder human lives.