In the legendary ritual of the Kaihōgyō, Japan’s Tendai Monks undertake an arduous 1000 day pilgrimage of physical endurance which requires them to travel 24,0000 miles – roughly the equivalence of the Earth’s circumference – over the course of seven years, in a spiritual quest to become a living Buddha. Of the men who have embarked on this punishing journey, only 46 have completed the 1000 day pilgrimage since 1885. Director Ivan Olita explains how he found himself travelling from LA to the Enryaku-ji temple complex on the holy Mount Hiei without any official authorisation in hand to prove his respect and interest in documenting this most sacred of rites.
The whole idea for the film started when Nowness Commissioner Michael Lewin asked me to shoot one film for their endurance series which is mostly based around extreme athletes achieving really mesmerizing things – it is about how men and women are able to push the limits of their bodies to overcome the impossible. I immediately thought I wanted to shoot something that obviously had a connection with a physical experience but was not directly connected to athletic performance. So me and my team at BRAVÒ started researching for the most intriguing examples of human endurance not directly connected to an an athletic discipline. I have to say that we still have a fantastic archive of people that achieve things beyond imagination but when I stumbled upon the Tendai Monks in Mount Hiei I was immediately hooked. It seemed so interesting to me.
I had to squeeze not only thousands of days of practice – but thousands of years of tradition! – into a 5 minutes piece.
Preproduction for the film was really interesting. The first element I believe I had to be fully committed to was obviously the research. I had to squeeze not only thousands of days of practice – but thousands of years of tradition! – into a 5 minutes piece so although it was absolutely impossible to include all of the information in the film I still had to make sure that I was totally aware of everything concerning the history of the mount, the tradition, the religion and the monks. This also set the tone for the piece and allowed me to give it context. Although I had to somehow lose it along the way, for the length of the film, and then synthesize it into sparkling visuals, I think it would have been impossible to shoot the film without context.
As stated in the film, the teaching is never exhausted and it just grows with the monk that has the obligation to spread it (ruzubun). That being said, although it takes him 7 years for the actual training to be satisfied, the teaching itself is never completed.
The runs are divided into 100-day sections as follows:
- 1st year: 100 consecutive days of 25 mile runs, beginning at 1:30 a. M. , each day after an hour of prayer.
- 2nd year: 100 consecutive days of 25 mile runs.
- 3rd year: 100 consecutive days of 25 mile runs.
- 4th year: 100 consecutive days of 25 mile runs – performed twice for a total of 200 days.
- 5th year: 100 consecutive days of 25 mile runs – performed twice for a total of 200 days.
- 6th year: 100 consecutive days of 37. 5 mile runs.
- 7th year: 100 consecutive days of 52 mile runs and 100 consecutive days of 25 mile runs.
Once the research was done I believe the most difficult thing about this project has definitely been ACCESS. The monks turned out to be much less willing than what we’ve expected, since they want to preserve the secrecy of the practice and the ritualistic aspect of the task, while simultaneously guarding the extreme focus needed to undergo the Kaihogyo.
The day before my departure for Japan I was working in Europe. I clearly remember calling Michael at NOWNESS to tell him that we still didn’t have ANY official authorization to shoot on temple grounds. I was tempted to cancel the shoot and not risk the budget, but our Japanese producers told me that the monks expected an actual gesture from me and that they wanted me to fly all the way to Japan to show my interest and respect for them in person first. Then, they said, they would have understood that I was serious about what I was trying to do and would grant me permission to shoot. I obviously decided to go and the next night I was sitting in front of a monk on the top of a sacred mountain 1 hour from Kyoto to explain my motivations. I guess this is why you decide to be a filmmaker.
We had to keep production and crew very light and minimal given that we had to be in the woods all day in pretty remote locations and wanted to be as respectful to the places we visited as possible. We obviously did not want to compromise the quality of the image so we opted to shoot on Sony A7S2 which, although it is sometimes met with skepticism by some of my DOPs, I believe they almost always deliver pretty great performances, especially in extreme low light conditions. I also firmly needed to shoot on a Ronin to achieve the tracking shots that allow you to feel with the monk while he is running. That was a real necessity for me. In terms of light, we were lucky enough to have an overcast sky for most of the days the shoot and that allowed me and DOP Ivan Kovac to play with the shots in color grading so that we could better show the ritual’s progression from night to day. When it was sunny I would keep in mind that those parts would be used at the end of the edit (they run from 1am to 9am).
The two monks who had completed the Kaihogyo were pretty incredible to meet and very different in their approach. While Mitsunaga Endo and his interview (that informs the VO) were planned, on the other end we simply stumbled upon the monk at the 2nd temple during our scouting and research. He is kind of the OG of the practice and completed it 50 years ago, so now he has a very special and much smaller temple down the hill where he welcomed us and invited into his fire ceremony that he has been doing every day since he first completed the Kaihogyo.
I was in Japan for roughly 2 weeks; 4 days of prep, 5 days of shooting and a week of pre-editing on site – I always like to edit projects of this kind as I go and possibly on site since you can get all the assets needed for the edit much more efficiently.
I worked with Grammy award winning composers Ali Helnwein and Daniel Mccormick because I believed this film needed a beautiful instrumental epic soundtrack that could highlight the journey of the monks. The fact that the duo is based in LA helped to deliver the epic side to the composition – we didn’t want it to be too grandiose. We were always taming it down so that it could reflect both the western side of things (how we perceive it as such an otherworldly accomplishment) and the eastern side (much more humble, focused on the prayers and the spiritual enlightenment as if it was just meant to be like that).
Grading was also really important as it allows us to feel the passage of time. There are a couple of instances in which the color grading and VFX department turned the day into night but I won’t disclose which ones they are. 🙂
It was incredibly fascinating to meet the two monks that had reached the end of the pilgrimage. To be able to take in their different approaches towards life through prayer and meditation as well as observe their overall sense of empathy, hospitality and welcoming, to a crew of foreigners, provided for an unforgettable experience.
What these people do is an example of the ultimate distillation of life.
While the younger one of the two (glass house) is still heavily linked to the temple grounds and the dynamics of the mountain Enryakuji, the older monk (fire) appeared to me as incredibly grounded and somehow detached from the whole ‘politics’ that exists in such an important institution. I felt that the older monk, who has been doing the fire ceremony, daily, for 30 years, holds a deeper understanding of the teachings and at the foot of the main mountain, created an independent reality, in where he cultivates his own world.
What these people do is an example of the ultimate distillation of life. They go to the essential core of it in consuming effort to get rid of ANYTHING and EVERYTHING that is unnecessary, both physical and spiritual. The fact that they do it while moving on feet does not make the movement the goal but a means to reach it, as the mountain is a means itself. With its nature, trees, rivers and purity the monks can lose themselves in its entranced rhythm, awaking their spirit with the pace of nature from sunrise to sunset, day after day.
We are currently in the process of developing a docu-series about third gender around the world based on one of our recent shorts MUXES. We are also shooting a documentary about teenagers in NYC and are currently finalizing a short doc about one of the most important exorcists in the world, based in the Tuscan hills, Italy. That one is also part of a series on FAITH I’m working on (of which the monks’ film is the first chapter).