Sep 9

Kagura Tours the East Coast; Some Memories of Kagura in Japan

Posted by JETAA Northern California’s Mark Frey (Kumamoto, 2002-06):

For those of you on the East Coast of the U.S., there will be rare Kagura dance performances at the end of October and beginning of November. If you are in the vicinity, I highly recommend you go to see it: As you may know, Kagura is an extremely old shinto ritual dance that relates the stories of ancient Japanese mythology. The stories are told through a series of dances with colorful masks and costumes. The dance cycles are long and performed in full can last 20+ hours. The cycle often culminates in the Japanese Ur-story of how by means of a wild and raucous dance the gods lured the Sun Goddess Amaterasu out of her cave in order to return sunlight to the universe.The overall atmosphere of Kagura on and off stage is one of alternating solemnity, spectacle, and shared mirth, overall an entertaining and life-affirming ritual experience. The music, which is very percussive and uses repetitive pattens, quickly becomes hypnotic, at times lulling you into a kind of trance.

I watched a lot of Kagura when I lived in the hinterlands of Kyushu, near the Ama-no-Iwatocave of the Sun Goddess Amaterasu in Takachiho. (I’m generally a skeptical person, but I felt a very palpable, strange energy when I entered the cave–a feeling of something extremely ancient and almost alien.)

The people of Namino village in the Aso region of Kumamoto prefecture where I lived perform Iwato Kagura every month at a small shrine at the base of a sacred hill. The performances, attended almost solely by locals, have a very intimate, homey feel to it. Indeed, the same family, attached to the shrine, has likely been leading performances of the dances for over a thousand years. I used to like to buy a bento and a bunch of snacks and spend the afternoon there spread out on a mat on the ground among the villagers. I was always the lone foreigner and received many looks of surprise. Everyone was extremely friendly to me though and there was a lot of sharing of good conversation and snacks.

Since the 1990s, the village has also mounted two huge Kagura festivals every year at a new Kagura stage constructed right next to a national highway. The festivals pull in thousands of people from all over Japan. The tension between these large (and profitable) festival performances and the more intimate, religious performances is discussed in Part 3 of an fascinating article about the fairly recent “Festival Boom” in Japan: “The Festival and Religion Boom: Irony of the ‘Age of the Heart,'” by Adhida Tetsurô.

Like the Japanese gods themselves, the Kagura I saw sometimes became quite ribald, with performers in masks good-naturedly trying to seduce each other and–better yet–audience members in amusingly amorous ways. I myself had a middle-aged man in the guise of the smiling goddess Izanami roll me to the floor in a suggestive, “drunken” embrace on more than one occasion. All part of the fun. An entertaining video of this dance is here.

On the flip side, on one occasion I saw an actually drunk man with no shirt and a headband tied around his head jump up from the audience and onto the stage to dance with the performers. He swayed and stumbled with a huge smile on his face. The performers didn’t miss a beat, weaving him into the story for a few minutes before skillfully leading him off the stage.

Another famous Kagura dance culminates in Tajikarao, a hulking god with a frightening huge, red face, grabbing a baby from the audience and swinging it around. The crowd enjoys seeing the baby freak out and anyway it is supposed to bestow great health and strength onto the child. I saw this happen many times and I have to say it was entertaining no matter how many times I saw it. Every year, the ritual is shown on the local news and in the local newspaper so everyone in the prefecture can enjoy images of a terrified baby in the arms of a horrifying monster. I did feel somewhat guilty enjoying it myself and I suppose it must be fairly traumatic for the child. But a small price to pay for a lifetime of health I suppose.

One of my personal favorites was the story of Yamata no Orochi, featuring huge, fire-breathing dragons. In the version I saw, Tajikarao (in other versions Susanoo) lures the dragons to him by placing a sake barrel in the middle of the stage. The thirsty dragons drink it dry, become drunk, and fall asleep. Seizing his chance, Tajikarao thrusts his sword into the beasts, cutting off their heads and slicing the rest of them into pieces. The serpents spews real smoke and fire throughout. Having cut one of the beasts open, he finds the legendary sword Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi, which later became one of three Imperial Regalia of Japan.

I wasn’t sure if Kagura had universal appeal and so with some trepidation I occasionally took friends to see it, including my sister visiting from America and Japanese friends–including some from the area–who had never seen it. To my relief, every one of them thoroughly enjoyed it, leading me to believe that Kagura has natural wide appeal. Safe to say, I would love if Kagura came to the West Coast, and I would love to see it in Japan again, too.

A video of Susanoo’s monumental battle with the dragons:

An excellent version by young performers:

A good documentary about Iwato Kagura in Takachiho:

Part 1 of the same documentary shows Amaterasu’s cave, as well as the spectacular Takachiho Gorge:

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