SOAS University of London

Department of Religions & Philosophies, School of History, Religions & Philosophies

Representing Religion in Japanese Films

Module Code:
Module Not Running 2017/2018
Year of study:
Year 2 or Year 3
Taught in:
Term 1

This course explores specific themes relevant for the understanding of Japanese religion in today’s cultural context. It analyses the practice of religion as a phenomenon that embraces institutions, rituals, doctrines, beliefs, and active participation. By focusing on cinematic media (currently films, documentaries and animation) rather than textual narratives, it aims at drawing attention on the dynamics of representation, legitimation and critique of religion as they are formulated in society, often outside the religious world itself but in clear connection to it.

At the same time, the course introduces recent or classic Japanese films that take religious figures, practices or concerns as the object of their narratives, and offers an analysis of their content from the perspectives of religious studies. Japanese films have hardly been taken into account in the emerging field of religion and film, and this course will offer the opportunity to explore significant examples.
This course is offered as an alternative to the course Themes in Japanese Religion, which I have been teaching for about 10 years, and as a trial for a similar course on film and religion, which I am planning at MA level for a future programme on Religion and Media.

Objectives and learning outcomes of the module

At the end of the course, a student should be able to demonstrate

  1. a basic knowledge of significant practices and ideas in Japanese religion and of their history;
  2. a good understanding of how religion informs and is represented in different cinematic media
  3. an awareness of how political agendas, social factors and doctrinal concerns converge in shaping the religious landscape of Japan;
  4. an understanding of the critical discourse on Japanese religiosity


1 one-hour lecture and 1 one-hour tutorial each week for ten weeks (plus one revision week).

Films screenings: two-hours

Scope and syllabus

Teaching is by means of a series of lectures and seminars. The lecture and seminar will take place the week after the screening. Students are expected to attend all the screenings and seminars, and to participate actively in the discussion demonstrating to have worked on the assigned material. Attendance is compulsory not only for the lectures, and will be monitored. During the seminars students will give (group) presentations.

Screenings will take place on Thursday evenings, 5-7pm (depending on the length of the film). The screenings will be part of the activities of the Centre for the Study of Japanese Religion and therefore opened to the public. The film screened will be available in the library for individual viewing.  

Schedule (it is expected that themes and film will, in part, change every year)

  1. Introduction: bibliographic references, methodological issues in the history of Japanese religion
  2. Representing religion: filming and agency
  3. Origin myths and institutional realities –Kûkai (Images of the founder I)
  4. What is religion selling? Kyôso no tanjô (Images of the founder II:)
  5. The court astrologer and the boom of divination   --Onmyôji
  6. Dealing with death –Ososhiki / Okuribito
  7. Essay seminar –no screening
  8. Practices in the Mountain –The ballads of Narayama / Akinomine
  9. From ascetic empowerment to global peace –Fragment
  10. Walking the path –Aruki henro

Method of assessment


One 5,000 words essay (worth 80%),one 20 minutes (group) presentation (worth 10% of the final mark),one marked written paper which demonstrates reading (worth 10% of the final mark).


Important notice regarding changes to programmes and modules