What to see and do in Japan – Iwami Kagura

Thanks to Iwami Tourism Promotion Committee‘s kind permission, Episode 5-4 was accompanied by an attractive video clip of Kagura performance, dipicting the warriors’ guardian god Hachiman fighting a demon.  I’ve written a bit about Kagura on the official FB page some time ago but let me expand it here. It’s a form of performing arts worth checking out whilst in Japan.

Unlike Kabuki or Noh theatre however, its uniqueness lies in the fact that there’s no professional performers involved in it. Whether they’re dancers, actors, musicians, or comics, they all make living elsewhere during the daytime and train and perform in their spare time.

Longer and fuller version of the clip I shared on my FB page

 

It’s very much like local performances you encounter in Balinese villages, even to the extent that they’re both dedicated to the guardian gods and deities of the villages, while serving as self-created entertainment at the same time. For all I know they may even have common historical backgrounds. My suspicion is that they both originate in India. There was that linguist Ohno Susumu who said Japanese is related to a group of Indian languages wasn’t there? Some other academics bashed him for it but I’m of an opinion that he’s got a good point. We all know now people have definitely moved from Africa towards east, some probably via India, so why not?

I digressed.

There’s various styles of Kagura in Japan but the tradition of Iwami Kagura is, in MHO, highly entertaining, as you can see above in the extended version of the video I shared in FB. It’s all about heroes and monsters, sword fights and bravery, adventures and conquests, with occasional romance and comical interludes. Just like in manga. Just like in video games. Just like those care-free, fun-filled childhood days you wished would last forever.

大蛇4

Image from Hamada weekly Kagura theatre at Sankū Jinja (三宮(さんくう)神社) – more information may be obtained at Hamada Tourism Association’s website; courtesy of Iwami Tourism Promotion Committee 写真提供:石見観光振興協議会

 

Imagine how captivating such stage shows must have been in the days before radio and television broadcasting. Iwami Province was located in present-day Shimane prefecture . Its Kagura style has spread to the neighbouring prefecture of Hiroshima and they boast their own adaptations. In these regions Some girls chase after the performers, and in big halls in or around town it’s nothing out of ordinary if you saw single lens reflexes flashing and video cams rolling everywhere.

Traditionally performers are all young grown-up males while musicians are of mixed genders and ages, probably partially due to how tough the stage is. The heroes and demons often spin around and around at a high speed or jump up and down in heavy costume, wigs and masks. However I once witnessed a very tall lady playing a demon (I think it was in Hiroshima not Iwami though). Her demon was one impressively menacing creature  and made my whole body shudder when it thundered its curse.

As for another, possibly more fundamental reason for male performers, of course there is that Kabuki tradition of all male actors. The story goes that a woman from Izumo (出雲, pronounced ‘Izmo’, not too far from Iwami itself and also in Shimane Prefecture) created the first incredibly alluring form of dance called ‘Kabuki’ but as it spread out and evolved into industry the government had to ban women from performing on stage for looking attractive and ‘corrupting public morals’ by their lucrative side business off stage. Ahem. Young readers please ask adults what it means. Anyway, this might have some bearing on Kagura performers’ gender. Just a thought.

In the video above, audiences sit politely and appreciate the art, but in reality they more often bring a large group of friends and relatives, sit with nice bento dinners on their laps and watch, sometimes shouting or heckling at crucial points. Little toddlers hold in hands a warrior’s fan their grandparents bought them and dance round and round with it as their heroes do on stage.

All in all, Kagura rocks!

*Thank you again, Iwami Tourism Promotion Committee, for the permission for the use of the video in Episode 5-vi as well as the gorgeous image in this article!

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