A kagura performer dances during a November performance in Tagouchi. (Photo by Natalie Oram)
With the Japan Kagura Festival coming up in Hiroshima city this January, Natalie Oram and Rachel Gilmour explain what we can expect to see during this ancient Shinto theatrical performance that is so famous in Hiroshima prefecture.
By Natalie Oram and Rachel Gilmour
Go down to your local shrine on a crisp autumn night and you may get more than you bargained for: old men brandishing large bottles of garage-brewed sake, small children gleefully dancing and in the midst of it all, kagura performers taking stage.
Kagura, a traditional Japanese music and dance performance, is most commonly seen in autumn, but there are performances at other times throughout the year as well. During fall festivals, kagura is performed as an ancient religious ritual for the entertainment of the gods. It really is one aspect of Japanese culture that should not be missed; not only are the dancers’ kimonos so ornate and vibrant that witnessing one of these performances can be a truly mesmerizing experience, but Hiroshima is also considered one of the top regions in Japan for kagura. In November, we attended an evening kagura performance in Togouchi, a small town in northwest Hiroshima prefecture.
The performances we watched took place in the dead of night. Wrapped in our warmest woolies, we made our way towards Doi shrine following the hypnotic sound of drums and flutes. Usually empty, that night the shrine was full to bursting. The kagura band was seated on the left of the stage. In front of them were families on picnic blankets, munching on dried fish. A bit further into the belly of the building, children were conducting their own mini plays, jumping around in circles mimicking the actors on stage. Floating amongst the seated families were crafty old men who challenged everyone to drink their moonshine. The sake proved to be a conversation starter and a source of warmth, though over-consumption along with sleep deprivation and the kaleidoscopic colours on stage combined to convince us that we had stepped into another world.
While Noh is like opera for the posh folk, kagura is for the everyman. Kagura is a uniquely Japanese tradition and one that is particularly famous in the mountainous northern regions of Hiroshima. In “old style” kagura, the troupe consists of a band including a flautist, taiko drummer and a type of cymbal player, as well as several performers who take on different roles.
Kagura performers wear intricate kimonos and expressive masks. (Photo by Natalie Oram)
The performers act out old stories with simple plots. Generally the main theme is of good and evil: of the brave hero vs. the evil and tricksy demon. The tales are told with little dialogue (using seriously old Japanese) and mainly through dance. Each story follows a similar pattern. First we meet the hero, whom is either carrying a sword or bow and arrow. He performs a dance indicating that he is looking for something or someone.
Whilst he is performing, the audience can see behind him flashes of fur and long hair. The demon is quite a tease, you see. He will only show a little of his body at a time. He does this by playing with the stage curtains and backdrop. Once his body has come into full view, always the last thing to show is his face covered by a very expressive mask.
Then, almost as if the audience has warned him, the hero turns around in time to see the demon and makes chase. The hero and demon expertly spin and leap, circling each other and expertly flourishing weapons. They “fight” until the demon hides again behind the backdrop. The hero follows him and they twist the backdrop sheet around and around until the hero escapes and the demon is in apparent despair at having lost his plaything. This is when the demon can truly show the vibrancy of his costume. He does his dancing in that same wily, teasing manner as before, hiding behind his hair and turning his back on the audience. Turning his back is rather a treat because then the audience is able to fully appreciate how intricate his costume is. Every demon’s costume is different. One of the more exciting costumes we saw had another demon mask on the back, so that even when the demon had turned his back on the audience, it was like he was still watching us.
It is normally during this solo, when the audience grows so fond of the playful demon, that the hero returns and after a little duet, kills the demon. At this point you can almost sense the boos from the audience, but we politely applaud the courageous hero as he does his victory dance and leaves the stage.
What impressed us the most is that while the actors are local petrol attendants and farmers by day, they are very professional in their art. Their movements are precise and perfectly in tune with the live music. This probably comes from years of practice from the moment they can walk because the children of Togouchi are brought up on kagura. Their parents bring them as babies to watch the excitement of the story on stage, and by the time they are in elementary school they are performing on the playground.
The young fans of kagura are not only boys with a love for play-fighting, but girls, too. However, while the characters are sometimes female, the girls can only grow up to be a part of the band. At first we thought this to be archaic and sexist, but upon trying on the costumes we understood why. The costumes are seriously very heavy. So heavy we could barely lift our mortal arms, and yet the performers are expected to dance around and appear to move effortlessly. And if this weren’t enough, the demon also has to grip the mask to his face with his teeth for the entire performance, never letting go through all the dancing and shaking of his hairy head.
Natalie Oram tries on a kagura costume.
While most of the kagura performances are fairly serious, as in all old forms of stage entertainment, like Greek plays and Shakespeare, you can expect a bit of comedy. The difference with the comedians is that they are not afraid to leave the stage to get involved with the audience. They bring gifts of daikon and sweets and on occasion steal a child.
Kagura is a very popular form of family entertainment in Japan. You can see competitions at the Kagura Dome in Midori-cho or at local festivals, but without any doubt the best way to enjoy kagura is at your local shrine in the middle of the night, surrounded by the local community, enjoying an unexpectedly debaucherous night.
Here is short video of the performance we watched in Togouchi:
KAGURA IN HIROSHIMA-KEN
There are many opportunities to see kagura in Hiroshima prefecture throughout the year. Here are a few places to consider checking it out:
Hiroshima city — Seventeen kagura groups from across Japan will perform during the Japan Kagura Festival in Hiroshima city from Jan. 9 to 11. The event will be in ALSOK Hall, a two-minute walk from the Astram Line Hakushima Station. Tickets are 2,000 yen in advance or 2,500 yen at the door and can be purchased now in Hiroshima city at DeoDeo (B1F), Fukuya Department Store (JR Hiroshima Station) and the Chugoku Shimbun.
Kake — The Nishi-Chugoku Kagura Competition in Kake (northeastern Hiroshima-ken) takes place the second Saturday of November each year. It’s 10 to 12 hours of music, dancing and drinking.
Midori-cho — Midori-cho in Akitakata city is home to the Kagura Village and its Kagura Dome, where there are regular performances at 12:30 and 2:30 p.m. on Sundays and holidays from April to November for 500 yen. Performances are 40 minutes. There also are night kagura shows at 6 p.m. on Saturdays between July and mid-August for 500 yen.
Togouchi — Togouchi in northwestern Hiroshima-ken has a kagura festival in early November. There’s also kagura during Sandankyo’s spring festival around late April.
Kimita-cho — On the first Saturday of September each year, the Kimita-cho Regional Kagura Festival takes place in Kimita-cho Ouyanagi Culture Park near Miyoshi.
Hiroshima Castle — If you’re able to fight the crowds, you can see some free kagura performances in front of Hiroshima Castle during Hiroshima’s Food Festival in late October.
Hiroshima City Kagura Promotion and Liaison Council — Find information about various kagura troupes in Hiroshima city and news about upcoming events.