Monday, May 29, 2017

From Takayama's Spring Festival to an Extraterrestrial Ritual: The Shared Awe of the Crowd

Last November, I made my first visit to Hida Takayama to witness the god of luck, Hotei, balance two tiny acrobats on his shoulders and dance above an audience of expectant tourists. Many of us waited for hours, fiddling with digital cameras, snacking on onigiri, and gazing up at the empty stage anticipating the entrance of one of the world's most famous Edo era robots.

Accommodating over a thousand visitors into the shrine took some serious maneuvering, highlighted by the fall out between an enraged elderly man swinging a tripod and the tripod's owner, a photographer who arrived late and jockeyed through the crowd to set-up front row center.

After police officers removed the suspect from the shrine accompanied by the gentle applause from the grandmother to my right, things settled down as we stood shoulder on top of shoulder, heads tilted skyward, waiting patiently in puppet idolization.

After Hotei's performance, the small city of Takayama, filled with Sake factories, robotic puppets, and one of the best hamburger shops in Japan, had me hooked.

Just a few months later, I hopped on a JR Expressway bus and headed back. As the driver travelled through the winding Hida mountains during a small snow storm I was excited to return without the throngs of festival goers and packed itinerary. During my second trip, I found a quiet town in the grip of winter as I carefully balanced across ice-covered sidewalks to cozy-up in the karakuri ningyo cultural archives belly full of Hida beef.

My third visit to Takayama was three months later in April during Sanno Matsuri. Takayama's fall and spring festivals are both enormous celebrations, each with their own ensemble of elaborate floats, or yatai. They each attract thousands of visitors from across the world, filling the streets with 18 foot floats adorned in glowing lanterns, dancing teenagers manipulating wooden lion heads, and a contagious chaotic euphoria.

This year, for the first time in Takayama's history, an additional festival is scheduled in May to celebrate the designation of the yatai as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Treasure. The ten yatai from the fall festival, Hachiman Matsuri, will wake from their hibernation, decamp from their garages, and roam the streets of Takayama at the same time as the thirteen yatai of Sanno Matsuri. It's hard to believe, but this event will attract even more people than the annual festivals, which already feel beyond capacity.

To navigate through Takayama's main street during a matsuri means relinquishing all autonomy and giving-in to the dense tussle of the crowd. As someone who tends to avoid any event with more people than a weekly book-club meeting, I am bewildered by those who willingly attend overcrowded events, from pop-star studded concerts to professional sports games.

The next morning the three yatai with karakuri ningyo travelled over Takayama's famous Nakabashi bridge and met at the city center.
Caked in sunscreen, I spent hours scoping out a spot near a roasted rice ball vendor, Jinya Dango. It was just as crowded as the previous evening, but as the yatai arrived and the puppets emerged, we relaxed into a pleasant anticipation.
Photograph by William F. Condee
As the February snow thaws from Gifu Prefecture, Sanno Matsuri brings forth three puppets that embody the essence of spring's arrival - transformation. With the opening of a mysterious box, a young boy transformed into an old man, an angry dragon burst from a cage, and a fan-dancing woman mutated into a wild lion. With each transformation, the crowd gasped in unison. Similar to my experience in the fall, the karakuri ningyo are some of the best in Japan.

On the second day of Sanno Matsuri, the procession of yatai was cancelled due to rain. However, the karakuri ningyo puppeteers agreed to perform inside the yatai garages. I made my way through the historic streets of the east district to watch one of the performances.

In a narrow alley, surrounded by only a hundred or so spectators, I watched the same performance as the previous afternoon. The show is based on a Japanese tale about a young boy who welcomes a drunk old man into his home, suspects him of being a dragon, locks him inside of a box, and drops him off near the Japanese sea. Filled with vengeful rage, the old man transforms into a dragon and breaks from the boy's makeshift cage. The two puppets are skillfully operated by 32 strings running through the the extended stage, or toi track, by six puppeteers hidden underneath. 

Even though I knew what to expect, I couldn't help but join in with the collective gasp as the dragon burst forth and launched confetti into the air. Afterwards, I thought about the previous morning when this same moment of wonder was shared amongst thousands. Despite having spent the last twenty-four hours begrudging my fight through the crowds, I missed sharing this show with the enormous mass of visitors. Even though these performances are for the gods, there's something about reacting to transformations with thousands that makes them feel like a mystical event.

Takayama's karakuri ningyo performs the impossible - it unites crowds of strangers into one shared moment of awe. I left the garage with a newfound empathy for those who enjoy the thrill of attending a World Series.

A few weeks later I'm in the hometown of Mt. Fuji, where the theater director Kuro Tanino premiered a new work, Moon, at the Shizuoka World Theatre Festival. Last year I wrote about Tanino's production Avidya: No Lights Inn, and I spent the winter months of 2017 interning with his company, Niwa Gekidan Penino, as they remounted the production Darkmaster at Komaba Agora Theater in Tokyo. Now in Shizuoka, I found Tanino skipping the conventional stage for an environmental experience that transformed the city's famous open air theater into an extrasolar planet complete with a cast of five little people in spacesuits and a make-shift moon-landing set reminiscent of Tom Sach's Space Program.

Photograph by Chiye NAMEGAI.
Shizuoka World Theatre Festival. Kuro Tanino's Moon. 2017. 

Each show welcomed a substantial audience of about four hundred as they made their way through the performing arts park towards a massive collection of astronaut helmets. Adorned in these stellar costumes, the enormous crowd followed the cast through the woods, collected geometric sculptures, and assisted in the creation of a celestial monument at the peak of the massive outdoor theater.

Photograph by Chiye NAMEGAI. 
Shizuoka World Theatre Festival. Kuro Tanino's Moon. 2017. 

Mame Yamada, who also played the lead in Avidya: No Lights Inn, sat at the monument's apex as hundreds of spectators stared up at his tiny figure with anticipation. Towering above, with his long hair, short stature, and hypnotizing movements, Mame-san felt like a space-age deity or a living version of Takayama's mystical puppets.
Photograph by Chiye NAMEGAI. 
Shizuoka World Theatre Festival. Kuro Tanino's Moon. 2017. 

The enormous mass of space helmets, continually intensified the stage images. By interacting with other audience members, transforming the environment, and staring reverently skyward at a three foot astronaut standing on a geometric shrine, Moon felt more more like a extraterrestrial matsuri than experimental theater. 

There are many moments of awe-inspiring spectacle in the performance, including a dance scene with music played solely from a collection of amplified Gamboys. With an enormous float designed by German theatre artist Caspar Pichner, the event culminated with the transformation of the outdoor theater into a grand celestial view. As if watching Earth rise from the surface of the moon, the entire audience of space-helmet clad visitors quietly took in the stage.

Photograph by Chiye NAMEGAI. 
Shizuoka World Theatre Festival. Kuro Tanino's Moon. 2017. 

Takayama matsuri and Tanino's Moon are two rituals developed centuries apart. They don't ask us to identify with their characters, but create an environment where we identify with each other. During both experiences, I recognized my shared impulses with other audience members, and entered into a sort of group consciousness often overlooked in the darkness of a conventional theater seat.

In the performance of Moon I attended in Shizuoka, the experience ended with an awesome but somber image - the Earth is an unsettling foggy tint, no longer inhabitable, void of its natural green and blue wonder. Yet, it's still an uplifting conclusion. The audience emerged from the other side, together, looking down at the Earth's surface in a shared silent stupor. We've learned how to be with each other.

For more information regarding Kuro Tanino and Niwa Gekidan Penino:

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

The Towering Matsuri of Inuyama & Ichinomiya

On April 1st, Inuyama Matsuri marks the start of Japan's spring festival season. Over the course of a few months, hundreds of floats will emerge from their winter hibernation and travel across the small towns of Aichi Prefecture bringing music, excitement, and puppet shows.

Often known as Aichi's "Little Kyoto,” Inuyama is lined with preserved Edo era homes, traditional Japanese inns, tea houses, and museums. The small but popular destination welcomes visitors with Japan's oldest castle, which towers over Haritsuna Shrine, home base for Inuyama's spring festival. With its enormous parade of thirteen ornamental dashi, large crowds of excited visitors, and neighborhoods brimming with culture, Inuyama is the perfect place to fall back into Japan's festival season.

On the first day of the celebration, Inuyama's dashi, or yama, gather in front of Haritsuna Shrine. The thirteen floats, each adorned with karakuri ningyo, tower above thousands of eager spectators. These are some of the tallest dashi in the Japan, measuring about 7 meters high. However, they are more slender than their cousins, and, despite their height, weigh about the same. Instead of ornate wooden carvings, the dashi are constructed from narrow beams and adorned in local textiles. Also, To help manage the float's weight, the karakuri ningyo puppets are a bit smaller.

Inuyama Matsuri is home to one of Aichi's most unique floats, a stunning 6 meter boat that travels through the narrow streets performing the story of Urashima, an old man who spends four hundred years underneath the Pacific. Typically a dashi's decorations, carvings, and embroidery won't offer too many clues into the karakuri ningyo they shelter. However, this stunning gold-trimmed vessel creates a unified vision of Urashima's famous nautical tale.

Urashima is not the only celebrated personality at Inuyama Matsuri. While children always play an important role in Japanese festivals, from pulling floats to playing music, the kids in Inuyama are adorned like living idols. The leader of the annual festival, or chigo, is selected each year from local primary school students. This six year old is draped in silks and a crown as he leads the annual procession.

Other children are dressed in beautiful outfits accessorized with decorative swans.

Like the blossoming sakura that attracts millions of tourists to Japan from across the globe, children represent Spring's sense of purity, rebirth, and future prosperity.

However, this has not been a good year for cherry blossoms. While April 1st in Inuyama is usually marked by a vibrant backdrop of blooming flowers, an unusual shift in weather has brought a spring season lacking the renowned colorful flourishes. As the afternoon parade of children lead the dashi underneath the naked trees, my mentor and friend Yasuko Senda can't help but mention the number of kids participating seems to shrink each year.

For locals, the future of these festival traditions always feels precarious. During the opening ceremonies, Inuyama's mayor mentions another event happening simultaneously 30km away - the grand opening of Japan's first Legoland. Sure, it will contribute to the economic development and growth of tourism to Aichi Prefecture, but the mayor reminds the crowd that it's got nothing on his hometown's 383 year old festival.

Compared to performances of Bunraku and Noh, where the majority of audience members are elderly enthusiasts in their 70s and 80s, I feel like Japan's festivals are far from drifting into obscurity. I mean, I just had to scramble through a crowd 3,000 people to watch a puppet show. But the residents in small town Japan are more aware of the country's population decline and impact of locals migrating to urban centers. It's inescapable, no matter how busy the festivals get. The children, with swans rising from their backs and head pieces tangled into blinking LEDs, aren't just symbols, but physical treasures of hope and endurance. 

Inuyama Matsuri continues for two days, marked by a stunning night parade and another performance of the thirteen karakuri ningyo.

The shows on the second day are performed at the shrine. Each dashi is pushed towards the torii gate by a team of young men. 

Unlike other floats, the massive wheels allow men to gather underneath the dashi to push and pull the towering vehicles throughout the city.

The floats are are filled with the local children, who look down at the crowds with curiosity, as the puppets perform for the gods.

In the neighboring city of Ichinomiya, the small town hosts their own festival two weeks later. Given their close proximity, the two matsuri share a lot of similarities, particularly the slender and towering dashi. However, Ichinomiya's floats are more modest. Instead of expensive fabrics and ornate decorations, the dashi are decorated in white papers that symbolize donations received from community members.

Inuyama's city government allocates a large budget to preserve and promote the annual festival. However, Ichinomiya lacks government support. Instead, the festival relies on the local shrine, Iwato Jinja, to organize fundraising efforts. While the festival might feel a bit more unorganized, lacking the Master of Ceremonies and VIP tents for special guests, the event is filled with ritual, including the offering of seven well-dressed horses to the shrine's god before they are paraded through the town's streets.

While the dashi may not have the same ornamental flare or financial support as Inuyama, the karakuri ningyo in Ichinomiya are well-rehearsed and exciting. It's some of the best performances I've seen so far during the spring season.

While watching the mechanical puppets trapeze across the towering stage, it corroborates my new adage, "You can't judge a puppet by it's dashi."