I Walk


TYPE
: Documentary Feature
GENRE: Documentary
STATUS: Post-Production

LOGLINE

Soulsearching travelers set out on a storied Japanese pilgrimage to rethink their lives.  As they look inside, they find ways to cope with their dissatisfaction.

SYNOPSIS

Sunlight reflects off the waves and the sound of cicadas fills the air along the steep mountain trails of Shikoku Island in summer.  This is the backdrop of Japan’s most famous pilgrim’s path, the Shikoku Pilgrimage. 150,000 pilgrims visit Shikoku annually to complete the 750 mile circuit of 88 temples, following the training grounds of the Japanese Buddhist monk Kukai, A.K.A. Kobo Daishi (774-835), who introduced the esoteric Shingon doctrine from China. Here, Kukai attained enlightenment by immersing himself in nature, and it is said that during the journey, he walks alongside each pilgrim, guiding them according to their needs. ARUKU-I Walk explores this idea, by documenting the progress of several pilgrims and capturing their chance encounters, over 50 days. Human dramas emerge, set against Shikoku’s mountainous coastline. As they complete the path, what is attained?                                  

The camera focuses on four pilgrims, with different motives for setting off on their respective journeys.                   

Hiroe Nagai (30) is a pharmacist who has taken a break from her career of 10 years. When we first encounter her she talks candidly about her professional burnout and inability to find a life partner. She treats the pilgrimage as an extreme Buddhist practice, engaging in intense ascetic training along the way. As she progresses, she regains her composure and starts to discover what she really needs in her life now.

Shoji Takaoka (23) first appears while filming himself in front of a temple on the route. He is depressed after being fired from his first job at a video production company and is now rethinking his vocation.  He undertakes his solitary adventure on two wheels, borrowing his mom’s bicycle. In addition to his commitment to the Buddhist practice of praying and reading sutras, Shoji works on his video project, describing what he sees, feels and finds, along his journey. Gradually, this renews his courage to take on challenges when he returns.

Retiree Mukoh Miyama (72) has resigned himself to a distant relationship with his family after a job posting separated him from home.  His name, which means “I don’t mean to be enlightened” is actually a Buddhist name he gave himself. He has been doing the pilgrimage continuously for 3 years and has already completed 35 circuits. His special method of going around the path is to make round trips between temples while using his minivan as shelter. A former mountain climber, he thinks that the Shikoku Pilgrimage is as close to climbing as he can manage, at his ripe age.

Li Kai (27), a Chinese exchange student, who has just arrived in Japan, became a “disciple of Kukai” after watching a film about the great monk.  Although his Japanese is minimal and he is ill-equipped, without a map or cell phone, he manages the path successfully relying on his natural instincts and Buddhist spirit. Parallel to Kukai’s excursion to China over thousands years ago, Li came to Japan to explore the world. As we follow him and observe his love of nature and all beings, it is as though we are looking at a reincarnation of Kukai.  

The real-life crises faced by Hiroe and Shoji seem to be reflected in their struggle to complete the hardest legs of their long pilgrimage. Their stories are interwoven with wisdom from Mukoh and Li who both have an easier time letting go of attachments. Mukoh cleans the trails along the way, proclaiming “We need to take care of the roads we tread”.  And in his minimal Japanese, Li Kai expresses Buddhist teachings in stark terms: “up and down, up and down, is no good!”                                                                                                      

All four characters benefit from the aid of locals in the form of osettai - offerings of food and money - as well as free accommodation.  Hiroe, the former pharmacist, gets relationship advice from a local artist.  Shoji takes encouragement from others while shooting his film.  When Hiroe’s irritation with the camera leads her to request a break from filming, the discussion brings the audience closer to the filmmaker, who is now confronted with the challenge of “letting go”.  The film ends with Hiroe, Shoji and Li completing the pilgrimage and reveals the impact it has on their lives.  Hiroe returns to her previous career and Shoji achieves success as a filmmaker in his own right.  Li Kai joins a monastery soon afterwards and eventually becomes a monk. Mukoh continues his pilgrimage until he has completed 108 circuits, happily declaring that “the meaning of life” is unattainable.

ARTISTIC STATEMENT

There are moments in our lives that we feel we are lost. You might be longing for change but it’s hard to get out of old patterns, or you might be going through depression after a devastating event. For thousands of years, religious pilgrimages have served as one way to help us tackle these universal difficulties. 

In 2020, the pandemic shook the world and presented all of us with unprecedented challenges. It made us see the world differently from before, and rethink how we live. Many of us started walking in nature or joining the BLM protests.  In a sense it made us all pilgrims, as we began to look for meaning, and “walking” was renewed as a way to overcome hardships.

“ARUKU-I Walk” focuses on protagonists facing issues which are particularly problematic in today’s Japan, but increasingly relatable to anyone:  Workplace burnout, employment insecurity, the inability to form lasting relationships, loneliness. By observing how these pilgrims confront such problems, the film offers food for thought for anyone thinking about their own direction in life.

I got to know the Shikoku Pilgrimage from my grandmother who lived on Shikoku Island.  While visiting her house as a child, I would watch the pilgrims walking along the road and praying at the temples, and wondered about their fascination with the place. 

My interest in the pilgrimage increased when I reached my early 30s and started thinking about the meaning of my life. Fast forward to summer 2011, I finally decided to film the pilgrimage myself, longing to do something different from my job as a TV director for over 10 years. 

In my job, filming a documentary usually requires a basic story line to which one must adhere while filming. My intention with “ARUKU-I Walk” was to break from that approach and to simply focus on “why people walk”, picking up characters through chance encounters and capturing their journey spontaneously. Just as pilgrims on the Shikoku pilgrimage allow the great monk Kukai to guide them, I aimed to treat filming as a pilgrimage and entrust myself to Kukai, letting the story take its own course.  

I was the sole camera and sound person for the entire documentary, mostly shot handheld, meeting pilgrims serendipitously as I walked. There is no narration or sit-down interviews in the documentary, and the story is told through conversations among pilgrims, between pilgrims and locals, pilgrims and myself and visual montage. 

In 2016 and 2017, I shot some follow up scenes, to show what happened to two of the pilgrims’ lives, which were significantly changed by the pilgrimage.  As I myself longed to make a career change and it has taken many years to complete this film, the entire process has truly been a pilgrimage of sorts for me. 

Throughout production, the struggles and wisdom of my subjects - the pilgrims - have encouraged me greatly.  Having walked the path alongside pilgrims on the shoot, and carefully listening to their dialogue in editing, I feel that the pilgrimage is a microcosm of life, for we are on the path of pilgrimage every day in our lives.  

 

KEY CREW

Shiho Kataoka - Director/Producer/Editor/DP

Shiho Kataoka was born in a small village near Kyoto, to a family with deep roots in Shikoku. When she was little, she was not given store-bought toys; instead she played with toys that her father made by hand, or made her own paper dolls. She enjoyed creating stories and wrote a number of cartoon books, which her classmates often passed around in elementary school.  In Junior High School, she wrote and performed the main roles in student plays. These childhood experiences inspired her to work in a creative field, and she moved to New York City in 1993, to study filmmaking at the School of Visual Arts.  After graduation, Shiho began producing television programs for various Japanese and Asian television networks such as NHK, FCI and CCTV.  In 2005, she established her own TV/Film Production Company, Cucumber Productions, and began working on her own projects while continuing her work for television. In 2009, Shiho won two Telly awards for her NHK documentaries, “Hospital Radio Station” and “Fun Science After-School”. The prime objective of her work is to share stories that can give people new perspectives, and create conversations between people from different backgrounds around the world.  

 

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ACCOLADES

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The Gotham Film & Media Institute - Fiscal Sponsorship Program 2021

 

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