CARVING THE DIVINE: BUDDHIST SCULPTORS OF JAPAN: REVIEW
The documentary genre is as varied a genre as they come. Some documentaries are poetic, some are politically activist in their aims, some are personal, some are universal in scope. What all documentaries have in common, however, is that they try to inform. There is a documentary subset that takes viewers into a niche specialization and shines an illuminating light on said specialization. Director Yujiro Seki’s Carving the Divine can be placed in that subcategory as it does a fine job illuminating a world many of us knew very little about.
Carving the Divine opens with a brief discussion on the difference between Mahayana and Hinayana Buddhism. That is the widest its scope ever gets. The rest of the film brings us inside the world of skilled Buddhist wood sculptors–Busshi, as they are known. Busshi guilds are composed of grand masters, masters, and apprentices forming a clearly defined hierarchy. There is a rigid formality in relations between master and apprentice. Masters are tough on apprentices and justify their harsh discipline in the name of greater and greater precision. An apprenticeship lasts a minimum of three years. Many newbie Busshi drop out. New Busshi dare not question or go against their masters. As one apprentice puts it, “If my master told me a crow is white, then I would have to learn that a crow is white.” Carving the Divine is to wood sculpting what Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash is to jazz drumming. Perfection requires strict discipline.
Seki does well in focusing his camera on the hands of the sculptors as they shape blocks of wood into intricate Buddhist deities. Granted, apprentices are under intense pressure and sometimes verbally abused by masters; but there is a sort of tranquil Zen-like quality in seeing the hands of sculptors shaving wood from blocks. There is also a great dichotomy created by Seki when presenting the grandmaster Saito. There is the mythical grandmaster and the real grandmaster. The legends revolving around Saito are rich. There are rumors that the grandmaster does not own a TV because it would take away from his focus. There are also rumors that he sleeps little and carves in the middle of the night. When we finally meet Saito, it is at his birthday party with the masters and apprentices of the guild gathered around him. The grandmaster offers gentle critiques of the apprentices’ work and even grants one apprentice his seal of approval. We vicariously feel the joy the apprentice feels when his piece gets the grandmaster’s approval.
There are some great insights gained by viewing Carving the Divine. We are reminded that craftmanship—especially in this case, a craftmanship that has developed over nearly 1,400 years—can never be matched by mass production in terms of design quality. We are also reminded of the importance of discipline in an artist’s development. Perhaps the master Busshi know better than anyone else that discipline is required not only in creating a statue but also an artist. In our hyper get famous quick, get as many followers on social media as you can, and celebrity without substance era; we sometimes forget that true artists spend many years sculpting themselves through that most unsexy of all concepts—discipline.
Raindance is screening this film on 2 November at Genesis Cinema (https://raindance.org/festival-programme/carving-the-divine-buddhist-sculptors-of-japan/)
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