Kagura: The unknown gem of Japanese folklore

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Kagura: The unknown gem of Japanese folklore

Kagura: The unknown gem of Japanese folklore

By Timotej Lauko


You may have heard of kabuki or noh, two of the classical Japanese drama genres. These are rather well-known even to a foreigner, who may not be as familiar with Japanese traditions, as a scholar or, of course, a native. I keep hearing that visiting a kabuki performance is quite popular tourist activity in Japan and it makes me wonder why do so few people that aren’t Japanese know about a theatrical dance called kagura.

Kagura performers date the roots of their art to the age of myths. Goddess Ame no Uzume danced a dance as a part of a plan to lure Amaterasu, goddess of the sun, out of the cave where she hid herself, causing darkness in the world. In fact this type of dance was originally meant as a way of worshipping the deities and usually used to be performed in front of a shinto shrine. Every kagura performance bears a story  – a myth or a fictional tale based on true events and historical figures. Although different, the stories contain several common aspects, such as supernatural elements, a fight between good and evil and finally a hero who prevails. It doesn’t sound so different from western fairy tales, does it?

Kagura shares many traits with other two theatre forms mentioned above and there are few doubts that it even predates both of them. However we might say, that in kagura the dancing element dominates. There are many varieties of kagura. For example here used to be something called Imperial kagura, performed at the Imperial court by supposed female descendants of Ame no Uzume. Although the form that has survived until today is a folk one called sato kagura. We can also see the difference between more ancient performances and those that have been created more recently. I personally was very stunned by the dance moves executed during Takiyasha-hime (I have seen it twice, performed by two different groups), performance classified as a recent one. Fast spins, energetic jumps and swift changes of costumes or masks were so much more dynamic when compared to Yamata no Orochi, a performance based on ancient myth of Susanoo, younger brother of forementioned Amaterasu, who slays a terrible snake. This of course does not mean that seeing a more ancient performance would be less impressive to watch. It is only a different experience. Also, kagura differs according to the area in which it is performed. I have an experience with Hiroshima kagura.

Let us talk about the costumes a for a while. Usually custom-made and beautifully decorated, they are colourful, masterly ornamented and unexpectedly heavy. I had an opportunity to try on an upper part of one and I was glad when I finally took it off. I knew the costumes weigh much, but I was surprised nevertheless. I believe the dancers must be in great physical condition not only to perform such stunts, but to perform them while basically wearing an armour. Apart from that, actors are often able to do the make-up they wear during performances that do not require use of masks, similar to those used in noh.

The respect the dancers deserve is even increased by the fact that none of them is actually a professional and they do this while maintaining their jobs. Same goes for the musicians who accompany the performances. There are usually four or five of them, playing Japanese flute, cymbals, small drum and a large drum called taiko. Taiko players are also expected to sing and lead other musicians. If the performance requires so, they even adjust the music. Since there is no sheet music for kagura, all of the musicians have memorised the melodies. It is also definitely worth mentioning that they can actually often play all of the instruments, because kagura musicians usually start as cymbal players and then get “promoted” higher and higher until they become taiko players. Sato kagura, similarly to kabuki, noh and other Japanese dramatic genres, is still performed mainly by male dancers and musicians (that means they take even females roles), but nowadays there are more and more women involved too.

Kagura is not only a dance though. Choreographies take turns with dramatic dialogue spoken in very ancient form of Japanese language, which is very hard to understand even for a native speaker. Performers memorise their lines and translate them to the modern language in order to better understand them. There is no sheet music and there is no script, except for certain secret texts, available only to the chosen. Until today, everything has been passed on orally through the ages from generation to generation.

You might say that it would be complicated to get to see a kagura performance and thus not worth seeing it. It is not true though. For example just in Hiroshima Prefectural Citizen’s Culture Center (situated very close to Atomic Dome) there are performances taking place several times a month. It is very easy to look them up. They also include English subtitles and are followed by and Q&A session moderated by an interpreter, during which the audience (mostly foreign) can ask the performers and the director any questions. Apart from that, kagura is a common part of many folk festivals or ceremonies. There is even a small, to a foreign tourist usually unknown village in Hiroshima prefecture called Kagura Monzen Tojimura that lives for kagura. This rural village in the mountains consists only of several shops, a traditional ryokan (inn situated around a hot spring) and most importantly a Kagura dome (used for performances) and small museum dedicated to this art. It reminds the ancient times of the Edo period and I was lucky to stay in the inn for one night, as well as experience the kagura performance in there. That, however, is a story for another time.

It is really a pity, that something as fascinating as kagura is known to us, tourists, only in a small measure. What else, if not folklore, is supposed to help us understand and feel the true culture of any nation? I think that if there were no stories and traditions behind them, famous buildings we love to visit so much would lose their meaning and meaning while only profane places. Think about that when You consider visiting a notoriously famous shinto shrine of Itsukushima. Kagura, or at least the stories it tells, is directly connected to it.


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