Preaching From Pictures: A Japanese Mandala

Before the 20th century, images were mute; they needed someone to explain their message. In early modern Japan, nuns of the Kumano sect (Buddhist) traveled the countryside preaching from a painting known as the Mandala of the Ten Worlds. Done in a cartoon style, the Mandala depicts the human life cycle and the worlds where we may be sent after death. Preaching From Pictures is an interactive disc that offers a 37-minute tour of the Mandala plus two hours of background information, discussions, and additional images. The tour contrasts sacred images in the Mandala with secular glimpses of daily life in Edo, Japan’s capital in the 17th century (when the Mandala was first made). Additional materials include: A 4-minute picture-sermon on the Mandala adapted from a nun’s performance as scripted in a 17th century Japanese puppet drama, Michiyukishu. A virtual symposium made up of 10-minute conversations between pairs of experts on Japanese history and Japanese religions: Professors Barbara Ambros, D. Michael Moerman, Brian Ruppert, Henry DeWitt Smith II, and Ronald P Toby. Interactive features include hypermedia buttons that link the discussions to a Glossary with definitions for all technical terms, and a Gallery with thumbnail copies and source information for all images, that appear in the discussions. A scrollable list of sources in English and in Japanese, both in print and on the internet. Preaching From Pictures is based on a film created by the National Museum of Japanese History and used in its exhibit of the Mandala. Funds from The Freeman Foundation helped support the production of this DVD.(from
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Great resource, but definitely for a high school audience

Field of Interest/Specialty: 1st-2nd Grade Teacher
Posted On: 05/03/2010

This relatively short DVD (running time approximately 35 minutes) takes a somewhat typical “art history lecture” approach to informing the viewer about the “Wheel of Ten Worlds” mandala. This 17th century mandala was used by the traveling Kumano nuns to preach Buddhism throughout Japan. The film uses a comparative approach and switches back and forth between the religious world of the Wheel and the secular world of Edo as depicted in a series of screens showing scenes of daily life.
The DVD packs a great deal of detail into a short amount of time. The viewer is walked through every aspect of the Wheel, and “overlays” highlight the way the mandala maps time and space, and how the horizontal and vertical symmetry play a role in the impact of the imagery. The wheel “within” the mandala has the arc of life at the top, and the torments of hell at the bottom. A topic such as “”Practice and Punishment” or “Age and Gender” is presented, followed by the elucidation of that subject, first within the Edo painted scenes, and then within the mandala. Much more time is spent on the mandala, and while this is certainly worthwhile, it seems as though the video does go into a bit too much detail regarding the wide variety of torments depicted in Hell. In addition, rather wonky and overly dramatic music accompanied the narration describing the mandala throughout the film; it was often distracting. At times the links to the scenes from the Edo screens were tenuous at best. I felt that this was a nice effort on the part of the film’s producers to help the viewer “ground” the mandala within the time period, but the Edo links were fleeting, and at times a bit of a stretch. For example, during the “Age and Gender” sequence, the commentator indicated that people of all ages and genders were depicted in the Edo scenes, and then cut away quickly to the mandala and an extensive segment on the arc of life and how women number men in hell, etc. Again, the intention was wonderful, but a more balanced analysis of both works of art would have been more helpful.
Overall I found the DVD to do a nice job of explaining the Wheel of Ten Worlds mandala. The musical accompaniment was tiresome, and the comparison to the Edo screens was only somewhat helpful, but the amount of time spent examining and explaining the many facets of the mandala was very helpful. Due to the rather graphic and unpleasant nature of the Hell scenes, I would recommend that this DVD be used for high school students, unless you have a particularly mature group that you are working with.