Detailed description

This documentary movie was made as a live-illustration to complement the monography 'Sacred Symbols of Reed and Bamboo' which was published in the series 'Swiss Asian Studies', Monograph Nr. 4, Peter Lang, Berne 1982

Both deal with a tradition which, due to the specific cultural geographic circumstances of Japan, has been preserved there in astonishing richness. This tradition consists of cult symbols which, in the frame of annually repeated cult festivals, are made by binding grasses and twigs to generally tectonic forms like pillars, huts etc. They are set up at particular places in the cult related locality and are either left to decay or are ritually destroyed soon afterwards.

Japanese ethnography terms them 'yorishiro' (abodes of deities) or 'kariya' (temporary structures) and interprets them as more or less insignificant elements in the agricultural rites; that is to say, they are mainly seen in the context of spiritual concepts worked out by the science of religion (fire rites, sun worship, fertility-cult etc.). The forms of the cult objects and the social relations within which they commonly appear are thus widely neglected.

In contrast to this the documentary movie 'Sacred symbols of reed and bamboo' and its complementary study present a different approach. The cult symbols are interpeted as an object tradition of central importance to this type of ritual and they are consequently analysed objectively in regard to materials used, methods of construction, form, spatial organisation and social relations given by their synthetic nature. They thus reveal themselves as something entirely different from what their previous evaluation suggested.

Seen from the fact that such symbolic constructions are not set up for the purpose of sheltering the human body, the theory of architecture considers them as a non-domestic building tradition or 'semantic architecture'. If, in regard to existing historic sources, this term could be interpreted historically, it could essentially contribute to clarification of the evolution of human building behaviour.

That this non-domestic, or 'semantic' building tradition does not have the function of sheltering the human body has a further consequence: its objects are free of the bonds imposed by human size. In terms of size, the Japanese tradition presents a wide range (20 cm to 20 m) of tectonic structure with essentially the same function: that of representing signs or symbols. It is obvious that this aspect might be of significance for the history of art since there is an immense relatable material from the earliest strata of various ancient cultures (Sumer, Egypt, Crete, China), which supports the hypothesis that signs and symbols made of perishable organic materials were widespread in ancient times.

In regard to the science of religions, the formal and spatial analysis of such cult symbols shows that they are by no means the primitive fetishes or idols that they were formerly supposed to be. On the contrary, they are of a highly complex nature, their internal structure expressig several congruent pairs of dual categories (above-below; natural technical; free-bound; not defined-defined; empty-compact; mobile stable, etc.) in one an the same form. It is thus conceivable that the religious significance of such cult symbols does not derive from external religious concepts but lies within the formal structure itself. To understand this significance one would have to compare them to concepts such as the Yin/Yang symbol which, though much more abstract than the presented symbols, helped the Chinese to structure essential aspects of their practical and spiritual life over long periods of time.

The documentary movie attempts to show an essential result of this kind of analytical approach. It first describes how, in the process of construction, a traditional symbolic form concept is given life in the bright light of day. The second part then shows how, in the obscurity of night, passing through a stage of luminescent light-form, these symbols are revert to the chaotic stage of non form, of material non-existence. It so becomes impressively visible that traditional patterns of ritual behaviour in Shinto, such as ritual nakedness, drunken ecstasy, chaotic turbulent movements, never ending noise produced with big instruments etc., clearly follow the pattern of the dissolution of the symbolic forms.