“Overcoming Obstacles” With Japanese Filmmaker, Yujiro Seki

Yujiro Seki
“I wanted to make something that speaks to my soul and to the world. I wanted to make a piece of work that would last long after I die. This is when I decided to work on the subject about the Buddhist sculptors of Japan, Būshi.”
I had the pleasure of interviewing Filmmaker Yujiro Seki. His latest project, Carving The Divine is a documentary that offers a rare and intimate look into the life and artistic process of modern-day Būshi — practitioners of a 1400 year lineage of woodcarving that’s at the beating heart of Japanese, Mahayana Buddhism.

What is your “backstory”?

I first encountered the magic of cinema when I was in high school. I felt the power of creating a world out of nothing. As I was making my first feature film, Sokonashi Deka (Enigmatic Detective) I fell so much in love with the process that I vowed to master the art of cinema and become a great director like Akira Kurosawa. As naive as that sounds, I was dead serious so I convinced my parents that I wanted to study film in the United States. I thought I had a bright future ahead.

As soon as I arrived there though, I quickly found that the English I’d studied when I was in Japan was inadequate to communicate with people in the US. I desperately wanted to make friends but very few people wanted to be friends with an Asian man with a heavy accent who could not speak English. But I was determined to pursue my dream. I decided not to make Japanese friends. I studied all the time and slept very little so that one day I fainted in class. Slowly, my English improved and I started making some open-minded friends.

Being in a multi-cultural country for the first time was very stimulating for me. I never experienced interacting with people from different cultures. I thought the US is an amazing country because many people from different cultures come together and support one another.

At first, I couldn’t make a movie because I couldn’t even speak the language, but slowly I started making a few short movies at the University of California, Berkeley. My insatiable thirst for learning about other cultures never stopped after graduation. I just loved to meet people from different cultural backgrounds.

So after working for a few years in a design company, I decided to go back to Japan, because over there I felt that I would be treated with more respect because I am Japanese. Yes, what was holding me back when I was in the US was not an issue in Japan. But after more than 10 years of absence, I realized there was something off about me. I picked up American individualism and became a person who expresses thoughts and opinions unfiltered. Since the Japanese culture values the collective over individualism, people thought of me as arrogant and outspoken and tried to suppress my individualism which I was very comfortable with. So I lost myself. I was neither Japanese nor American. I felt like I had nowhere to go.

But I hadn’t forgotten my dream. I was going to make a movie that inspires people. If I was to make something again, I wanted to make something that speaks to my soul and to the world. I wanted to make a piece of work that would last long after I die. This is when I decided to work on the subject about the Buddhist sculptors of Japan, Būshi.

Can you share an interesting story that happened behind the scenes during the making of the film?

When I do my videography work along with other production companies, I always keep the idea of how to be courteous to other people in mind. Each company has a different purpose when recording an event. I believe we need to respect each other and let everyone have their turns. Most of the time I live by this unwritten rule. But when I was recording Carving the Divine, this rule went out the window.

There was an important once in a lifetime Buddhist ceremony which was crucial for telling the story of Carving the Divine. There were a few established TV stations during the event and they were there to capture the ceremony for the evening news. I mercilessly shot the ceremony without thinking about if I was in their ways or not. The reason I did this was, in my mind, capturing the footage of the ceremony for me was far more important than their recyclable evening news.

At some point, this older man pulled me aside and told me, “Who the hell do you think you are? Are you special or something?” I said, “Well, I was assigned by the priest to capture the exclusive moment of the temple.” It probably sounded like I was lying but I wasn’t. I got special permission to shoot the event in an exclusive area. I just was not informed that I had to get along with everyone! The older man said, “We’ve been filming your ass this whole time. We work for TV stations. We need to shoot for the evening news! Let’s get along. Can’t we do that?” He looked very upset and walked away from me. I think it was a sad moment because he was furious and looked like he wanted to start a fight with me.

I thought it was ironically funny because I was completely violating a Japanese moral code, which was to be courteous to other people. I was not courteous. I was selfish to the extreme. But, I believed in my project and did everything I could to capture the best possible footage. If I had not been so selfish, I would not have gotten enough footage to tell a complete story. Was I wrong or right? To this day, this is one of the philosophical questions I ask myself.

Yujiro Seki via CarvingTheDivine

What are 5 things you wish someone had told you before creating your first documentary?

1. I wish someone had told me that even a non-budget documentary like mine could financially destroy a filmmaker.

When I started, I naively thought since I am “a rebel without a crew” I don’t need to pay too much for expenses. Well, my prediction was wrong. Even without a crew, the movie turned out to be money eating machine. I heavily invested money in equipment, lodging, transportation and so on. Sometimes, I spent money on gifts and food for the people who were kind enough to let me film their activities. Post-production — even with heavily discounted color correction and musical composing — was still very expensive. On top of that, the cost of film festival submissions add up and promoting the film through social media requires an ongoing budget that sucks my last penny.

2. I wish someone had told me that independent filmmaking could potentially make one’s relationship with his/her family and friends worse.

When I expressed my interest in starting the documentary everyone in my family was very supportive. They saw that I was struggling to overcome an identity crisis and they wanted to lend me support. The promise to access to the Būshi (Japanese Buddhist sculptor) world as well as the access to Shingon Buddhist ritual was a rare opportunity I had because of my family connections. However, as I demanded more time and access to more difficult to film practices and rituals, even my family’s patience began to run out. I was able to film what I needed but I feel there is still a weird vibe going on between my family and me. The relationship that I had prior to starting the film has not yet come back. I believe this will take years to repair.

3. I wish someone had told me that someone who is supposed to be on my side could turn his back on me from time to time.

While filming the completion of a Buddhist deity itself was breathtaking, the following Buddhist ceremony to commemorate the statue and the shrine was also an important event to tie the story together. I got special permission to move around and shoot the event in any way that I wanted. However, one of the Būshi told me that I could only shoot the event from very far away. He insisted that in Japan there is an expression called “reading the air.” This means “Yes” often doesn’t really mean ”Yes”. I thought to myself, ‘if this was what we call “reading the air’ there would be no way I could ‘read the air correctly’ in any kind of situations.” So, I had to have my father and the priest himself come in and explain to him that it’s okay to film in any way I wished to. In the end, he angrily told me, “Do whatever the hell you want!” I thought he was on my side all along. I could not believe he wanted to ruin the entire movie after he had witnessed my effort to make the best possible film.

4. I wish someone had told me that even my passion would often get dried up from the process of feature documentary filmmaking, and I would always have to fight with the sense of self-doubt so that I could have been more mentally prepared.

I thought my passion for filmmaking is invincible. Guess what? I was wrong. The journey was filled with the sense of self-doubt. I questioned myself all the time — if I was qualified to tell the legacy of a 1400 year tradition. I questioned myself all the time — if sacrificing a good chunk of my life pursuing this documentary would be worthwhile in the end. As I spent more money on this project, I got more scared of my financial future. I didn’t start this project to be rich. Had I wanted to pursue a materially comfortable life, doing an independent documentary about Buddhist sculptors would have been my last choice. I believe in this project from the bottom of my heart. I wanted to show the world how beautiful, profound, unreasonably strict but ultimately kind-hearted this tradition is. Yet, I faced and still face self-doubt and denial on a daily basis.

5. I wish someone had told me that film is essentially business and finishing the movie is only the beginning.

As an artist, I solely focused on making a great piece of work. When I came out of my dark cell (my small apartment room, AKA editing seclusion), I realized film is essentially business. I had to learn about digital marketing and social media from the scratch so that people will know my film exists! It was a very painful process for someone who didn’t know what a hashtag was (consider myself a social media dinosaur). I made many mistakes along the way and learned about this complex system that I was never aware of previously.

It has been noted that you started a YouTube channel. Can you tell us more about that project and the motivation behind it?

Carving the Divine TV is a series of Q&A sessions with Buddhist scholars and practitioners on our YouTube channel. These Q&A sessions explore the basic concepts of Buddhism and the history of Buddhism so that when viewers finally watch Carving the Divine they will get the maximum value of the documentary. Of course, the objective of having the show is to raise awareness about Carving the Divine and promote Carving the Divine by giving people free content. However, Carving the Divine TV is more than just advertising. Each show is about 10 minutes long. We discuss the most fundamental historical and philosophical concepts of Buddhism.

The show is strategically designed to give people the overall idea of Buddhism. In other words, I would like to make a concise encyclopedia of Buddhism for beginners. I want to give something valuable to the general public. I believe this crash course of Buddhism will expand people’s learning horizons and enrich their lives.

Some of the biggest names in the business, sports, and entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have a private lunch with, and why?

I would have to say it would be a great pleasure to have a private lunch with Mr. Warren Buffett. Not because he is one of the wealthiest men in the world but because my impression of him is that despite being extremely wealthy, it doesn’t seem like he was completely eaten by the force called money. As far as I know from different media publications he lives in a humble house and relatively lives a humble lifestyle. If he is truly the type of the person who does not worship material wealth as a solution for everything, and if he is truly a person who really lives a relatively humble life and projects positive energy, I would like to know his secret: being wealthy yet humble and positive.