Friday, 12 March 2010

Death and transformations

I was pleased that my son had been asked  by our neighbour to join her daughter in learning traditional dance. Ah, thought I, a nice gentle contrast to the thunder of Taiko and the martial austerities of Kendo, which involve, respectively, hitting animal skins and other people's heads with sticks. I pictured nuanced  stillness and precision, delicacy and balance, a lovely addition to any growing boy's repertoire of possibilities.  I pictured fans and parasols.

It was only at Friday's dress rehearsal that it hit me. They were re-enacting the final moments of the White Tigers Corps (Byakottai),  teenage soldiers, nineteen of whom who took their own lives during the Boshin War in nearby Aizuwakamatsu. This is a deeply ambivalent subject for me. M-san's view is that this story, which has become a famous strand in Japanese culture, is only remembered for it's tragedy. She feels that it is remembered so that we ensure it never happens again. This is reinforced by remembrance of the catastrophic impact of Japanese nationalism in the Second World War, which has led the Japanese people to be very aware of the impact of war on ordinary people, including children.

I recognise this, and the ladies waiting for their turn on stage did indeed cry as my son and his friend enacted the deaths, but I can't help feeling that the story is somehow fetishised, and that there is a degree of admiration and celebration of their choice - and for the Bushido system that led these young people to their tragic mistake. Separated from the rest of their unit, they killed themselves in the mistaken belief that their castle had fallen and families been killed, reinforced by their awareness that the attacking forces had killed many similar young people earlier in the campaign.

In some ways this act was the inevitable result of their rigorous, competitive and honour-based education where Bushido was rigidly enforced. The  fascist regimes in Italy and Germany sent monuments to Iimoriama, the hilltop shrine sited where the young people died. They certainly seemed to have been celebrating the story in terms of loyalty to lords and masters, not sadness at wasted childhood.

Still, come the performance proper, the community reacted so warmly that it would be churlish not to concentrate on how dance itself has been an important part of local culture. All the other performers were middle aged or older, and the audience were touched that two children at least are keeping the tradition alive. The hall was packed with an appreciative audience, and not a dry eye was in the house.

The valley's woman dance teacher dancing as a male samurai

A succession of beautifully dressed and coiffed women (and one man) performed their sequences of tableau-like dances over the course of three hours. The very distinctive style of dance, usually performed in synchronised groups, is more a chain of separate static images and gestures then the flowing or rhythmic pulses of movement that are more common outside Asia. It has a neatness and containment which is Japanese body language writ large. This particular brand is likely based on older traditions, but is now performed to syrupy Enka backing tracks, which sadly must have become the popular replacement for real musicians over the years since the 1950's and 60's.

With the exception of the massed ranks of sparkling ladies playing electric Kotos (to more backing tracks), and  several story tellers, dance is clearly the art form most loved and kept alive by the older population here. Being able to transform yourself into a dazzling confection of colour turning in the spotlight must hold a particular attraction when you spend most of your life trussed up in winter woolies or scarfed and hatted against the sun and up to your knees in paddy field mud.

One of the two remaining male exponents is now in his late seventies, but is fond of reclaiming his youth when dancing, with a thick layer of slap and wigs, which transform him into a somewhat alarming, if handsome, teenage beau. We were treated to his own version of the Byakottai story, and another of his dances involved yet another suicide, this time involving a grown samurai, with a graphic disembowelling motion accross the gut which stayed in the mind as an overlay to the flowers, spinning parasols and fans of the lovely ladies of the mountains.

So that's:
Child suicides 3
Disembowellings 1
Ladies in lovely kimonos, 47


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