Art of the Rising Sun

A new festival at the Esplanade celebrates all that's old and enduring, or new and hip, in Japanese culture.

Helmi Yusof
Published Thu, Mar 17, 2016 · 09:50 PM

SUPER JAPAN is the name of an upcoming festival of Japanese arts at the Esplanade - and, at least in this instance, the word "super" isn't pure hyperbole.

After all, Japan is one of few countries in the world that has managed to preserve many of its old artistic traditions while creating new, painfully hip trends. The wide range of arts at Super Japan - from centuries-old kabuki to hyperkinetic videogame-infused pop - attests to that. But what explains this cultural vigour?

Cross-dressing kabuki actor Kotaro Nakamura, who is set to play the sun goddess Himiko at Super Japan, says: "Japan is an isolated country surrounded by the ocean, which may have made people insular and conservative. Its people try to develop customs and traditions with a domestic view first, which may also help explain why Japan has been able to preserve them well."

Takeshi Shiraishi of shadow puppetry troupe Silhouette Theater Tsunobue agrees, saying: "The nation has been relatively peaceful in terms of foreign invasions and threats in its history of 2,000 years. This helped Japan develop and cultivate a distinctive culture for a long time."

External influences, says Mr Shiraishi, are absorbed to fit into the Japanese way of life: "From the 6th century, Japan has been good at importing foreign cultures and ideas such as Buddhism, letters and tea, and later in the 19th century, modern and industrial technology. But Japan digested them and applied them to a Japanese way of life."

At Super Japan, you'll find shamisen player Hiromitsu Agatsuma funking up the traditional instrument with rock beats, and Okinawan folk band Unaigumi being given the Ryuichi Sakamoto cool synth treatment. At the same time, pop stars such as Kyary Pamyu Pamyu are blending Japanese pop music and video game iconography to become the country's answer to Lady Gaga.

BT Lifestyle speaks to three practitioners of traditional Japanese arts to discuss their distinctive art forms.

More information on Super Japan - Japanese Festival of the Arts can be found on the Esplanade website. Tickets from Sistic

Cross-dresser invokes kabuki goddess

ONNAGATA is the Japanese term used for men who play women characters in kabuki theatre. Some are so convincing, they rise to become celebrities, admired by women and men and feted as national treasures.

On May 20, onnagata Kotaro Nakamura will perform the mythical role of Himiko, the Sun Goddess of Japan, at the Esplanade Concert Hall. Backed by Japanese and Western musicians under the baton of Yoshihiro Kanno, Nakamura will chart the fantastical birth, life and resurrection of the Sun Goddess in one gorgeous costume after another.

Nakamura says: "Himiko is one of the most mysterious figures in Japan's long history. She appears in many ways in thousands of different documents. Hence, the actor is allowed to pursue his personal interpretation of her ... Consequently, the role is very difficult for me - as many other roles are - because I have to conceive her mannerisms and perfect them through trial and error."

Nakamura, 22, comes from a long line of famous onnagatas. His father is Fukusuke Nakamura IX and his late grandfather was Shikan Nakamura VII. The latter was named Person of Cultural Merit in 2006, a high distinction awarded by the Japanese government.

Nakamura says: "Kabuki has a history that dates back more than 400 years. The tradition has been inherited by successive generations, and is one of the most important things that are being passed down to the next generation of Japanese. Hence, mastering it will take all of my lifetime.

"In fact, I'm still refining my onnagata skills from my father, who had learnt from his father, as well as many veterans of the kabuki practice. To me, the most important thing is the appreciation of the audience - nothing can replace the sincerity of their applause when they are genuinely entertained by a performance."

The role was co-created by his father, Fukusuke, who collaborated with composer-conductor Kanno, violinist Yasuko Otani and shamisen player Mojibei Tokiwazu to create a musical that blends traditional Japanese music with Western classical sounds.

The result, as described by Nakamura, is music that has both "magnificent dynamism and delicate beauty, expressing enough for us to understand this mysterious character of Himiko".

Himiko - Memories of the Sun Goddess (a production of Suntory Hall) will play at the Esplanade Concert Hall on May 20, 7.30pm. Tickets from S$38 from Sistic

'Dialogue with gravity" in butoh

BY now, butoh dance company Sankai Juku has performed in 700 cities in 45 countries over almost 40 years. The sight of shaven-headed men with white-powdered bodies moving at a glacial pace has mesmerised tens of thousands of audiences.

But the questions that company founder Ushio Agamatsu often gets is: "What is butoh? Why is it so slow?"

Agamatsu, 66, says that butoh is essentially "a body's dialogue with gravity". Every one of us has this dialogue with gravity, from the time we are born to the time we learn to walk to the time we leave our bodies - but we do so unconsciously.

In the case of butoh dancers, the dialogue is a deliberate and intense one, an unbroken "thread of consciousness" between their bodies and the gravitational pull of the earth.

As the dancers slowly shift their weight from one limb to another, their bodies and minds react to the infinitesimal changes of that relationship. And that is why the movements have to be so slow and precise, to facilitate that meditation.

But Agamatsu says: "The definition or philosophy of butoh varies from one butoh artist to another. I have been influenced by the first generation of butoh artists, but I have continued pursuing my way of thinking and creating. I think other butoh artists may be taking the same path."

If his explanation of butoh sounds too conceptual or abstruse, the physical results are visually arresting for anyone who comes to his shows with an open mind.

In Singapore, Sankai Juku has received rave reviews for performances at the Esplanade in 2012 and 2014. Critics described their works as "elemental", "magnificent" and "mesmerising".

Its upcoming show at the Esplanade on May 20 and 21 is titled Meguri: Teeming Sea, Tranquil Land. Agamatsu says: "Meguri is about the time and space of a life, including the life of a human being, which has been nurtured by the earth. It is about the universality of the human experience beyond the differences of cultures."

Agamatsu founded his company in 1977 with just four dancers. It quickly captured the imagination of dance lovers, especially in Europe. Yet, despite the wide acclaim the company has received, Agamatsu chose to expand his troupe very modestly - from four to nine.

He says he is less interested in widening his reach or his audience base than in creating metaphysical movement pieces that help the audience gain a better understanding of their relationship with nature.

He says: "It's more important for me to focus on making works out of questions that occupy my mind, than finding an expression that appeals to a larger audience."

Sankai Juku's Meguri: Teaming Sea, Tranquil Land will be performed at the Esplanade Theatre on May 20 and 21 at 8pm. Tickets from S$28 from Sistic

Mystique of shadow puppetry

JAPANESE shadow puppetry gained popularity across the country in the early Edo period of the 17th century. But in the late 19th century, cinema began to eclipse shadow theatre as a top source of mass entertainment.

Shadow theatre saw a decline, particularly during World War II when certain forms of artistic activities were restricted. But after the war, the practice was revived as modern shadow play, known as kindai kage-e.

Silhouette Theater Tsunobue was established then and gradually expanded its audience through its faithful retelling of fairy tales from Japan or elsewhere.

Today, the 18-member company visits about 100 cities across Japan and entertains about 120,000 people a year.

Come May, the company will present Princess Kaguya at the Esplanade. The fairy tale, said to be Japan's oldest, is about a tiny girl who is discovered in a bamboo shoot by a woodcutter.

The woodcutter and his wife raise her as their own child, only to discover later that she is a celestial being who would one day return to the moon.

Altogether, 10 puppeteers will manipulate approximately two dozen wood puppets behind rich and colourful screens that evoke the magic and fantasy of Princess Kaguya.

Takeshi Shiraishi, the company president, says: "The beauty of shadow play is that we can conduct scene changes instantly, and change the figure and size of each character to denote distance and so on. The most unique aspect of our company is that our productions are very vivid and colourful and they appeal to both children and adults."

Mr Shiraishi says it takes about three years to become a good puppeteer: "Operation of puppets is difficult. Audiences don't see the real puppets, they only see the shadows on the screen. But shadows can be easily distorted depending on the degree and distance of lights. And movements of puppets are limited."

"In addition, puppeteers have to always be in kneeling positions beneath the screen, so that affects their bodies. In short, there are lots of challenges for puppeteers and they train every day to meet these physical challenges."

That said, he is certain Singapore audiences will take to the tale: "Japanese people have treasured the story of Princess Kaguya for more than 1,000 years. It is appreciated for its universal themes - the human longing for the moon and the unavoidable pain of separation between people who love each other."

Princess Kaguya by Silhouette Theater Tsunobue is on at the Esplanade Recital Studio on May 16 and 17 at various times. Tickets at S$25 from Sistic

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