Past, present, religion and nature come together in a thoughtful if meandering documentary on construction culture.
“In some cases, we’re used to thinking in ten to twenty year blocks. We should get used to thinking in 1,000.”
Every twenty years, in Japan’s Mie Prefecture, the Ise Jingu (Ise Grand Shrine) is rebuilt. Not maintained or remodelled, but entirely rebuilt from scratch. The complex, comprised of a number of smaller shrines and two major ones, is supposedly the home of the sacred Eight Ta Mirror and one of the holiest sites in Shinto religion. The Shikinen Sengu (Ritual of Renewal) serves many purposes: to enforce the belief of the cycle of nature, life and death as well – according to master architect Mitsuo Ogawa – to pass down architecture techniques from one generation to another.
But it’s more than that. As described throughout Masaaki Miyazawa’s In Between Mountains and Oceans, the renewal “bridges the past to today and today to tomorrow”. Alone, this is a very good, intriguing concept to build a documentary around. The shrine has a long history and its position as one of the most important in Shinto certainly allows for a lot of narrative about the placement of religion within Japanese culture. But Miyazawa has a different approach of sorts.
Instead, In Between Mountains and Oceans looks at a slightly grander picture: the connection between the Japanese people, religion and nature. Forests are central to religion, we learn, and only specific cedars are allowed to be cut down for the renewal – specifically, 200-year-old ones; rice is called “our source of life”. Filmmaker Takeshi Kitano, in his interview, describes endless cycle of life. And so the movie goes on, as it looks at the ocean and its fish, the forests and its trees, and everything in between. With this in mind, it’s easy to see where the title comes from. Unfortunately, the film never quite circles back to the topic of the Grand Shrine or just how hand-in-hand nature and religion go. It just sort of ends.
The film seems to want to talk about the connection between the Japanese people and the abundant nature around them and while it does raise some ecological points about sustainability, it never really gets further than a few adages about looking to the future, or to treat nature as if it were sacred. Written, it doesn’t really cohere and you get the impression that its strengths are less in its literal narrative and instead lie in its ability to get the audience to experience the peace that comes with cognitive connectedness.
As a visual storyteller Miyazawa excels in highlighting the shrine’s importance within both Shinto culture and Japan’s as a whole, and knows exactly how to illustrate the points made by the various people interviewed. This is no surprise: Masaaki Miyazawa is, by trade, a photographer and one can’t help but wonder if In Between Mountains and Oceans might have worked better as a photography or art book. While some of the interviews do help give context to the images, they’re simply not presented in a way that makes an all-that-appealing documentary.
And I could go on about the almost hilariously long explanation of the process of composting and photosynthesis given to us by a government official or the seemingly unrelated asides by fishermen and carpenters but I won’t. It could have used a second pair of eyes in the edit, but it’s not enough to really disparage the film. Ultimately In Between Mountains and Oceans isn’t trying to tell a traditional narrative. Rather, it lets you experience what the people featured are trying to explain, through carefully-crafted audio mixing and photographic choices.
Verdict: In Between Mountains and Oceans boasts visual mastery from Miyazawa, which more than make up for its lacking pace.
Overall entertainment: 7/10
Conversations about trees: Many
Out of nowhere Kitano: 1
In Between Mountains and Oceans (2016)
Also known as 海山間(Umi yama aida)
Director: Masaaki Miyazawa