In 2019, I had the pleasure of watching a review copy of Carving the Divine, an independent production (the review was also published on our Spanish-language website). It charts the lifestyles, work, and callings of the busshi, masters of the art of butsuzo, the old art of woodcarving Buddhist statues.
Now the project is seeking support for distribution, and a fundraising page is online on IndieGoGo.
It is not exaggerating to say that the film is now at a crucial phase now that its director has had it screened at as many film festivals as he can (one of them being the famous Raindance Film Festival in 2021). Carving the Divine is unique in covering butsuzo, and has been critical in spreading awareness about this art outside of Japan.
Yujiro Seki was born to a family deeply immersed in the butsuzo tradition. His father is a butsudan altar craftsman, and for the longest time Yujiro did not feel any novelty in the practice of making Buddhist sculpture. In fact, as he has shared with many non-Japanese friends, most people in Japan feel a sense of familiarity and simultaneous detachment from butsuzo, seeing it as a commonplace and even staid fact of everyday life. The reputed widespread unbelief and atheism among Japanese may be overstated, since spiritual belief need not equal formal religious affiliation. But when one is surrounded, or even saturated, by religious aesthetics and reminders, it can feel a bit like background noise.
Yet despite the decline of religious practice, spirituality suffuses much of Japanese society, and there has been anecdotally an uptick of interest in spiritual answers to life’s questions in the wake of the pandemic, repeated lockdowns, and a much darker outlook for the country’s economy and people’s prospects. Carving the Divine was shot in 2018 but its message has renewed urgency as people seek answers beyond the materialism and assumptions of everyday life.
Carving the Divine has shaken things up by presenting this venerable woodcarving tradition as an authentic Japanese vocation that has much to offer the world. Through Yujiro’s meticulous use of social media like Instagram and Facebook, along with his videos on YouTube, the project is at the core of English-language promotion of butsuzo. What is striking about this art form is that creativity, in its most basic form, is not about creativity. It is about perpetual refinement, a never-ending quest of perfection to make what has come centuries, decades, and years before, better and better, in the spirit of attentiveness and meticulousness. The stakes of making such statues could not be high enough, for they will find homes in family shrines, temples, commemorative halls, and all manner of sacred places.
In future posts, I will join Yujiro to explore some of the highlights and hallmarks of this beautiful art.
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