Thanks so much to my friend Chizu, who invited me along tonight to drive down to Nanjô-shi for a kumi udui performance in the outdoors, with a small audience sat on folding chairs, in a small open space next door to the Sashiki Shinzato Kôminkan (Civic Hall). What nice timing that I should happen to get to go see (listen to) Nidû tichiuchi, a play about Amawari (lord of Katsuren) and Gosamaru (lord of Nakagusuku), right after visiting (and blogging about) both of those castles!
I guess some terminology explanation is in order. Kumi udui 組踊, or kumi odori, is the chief form of Okinawan traditional dance-drama. It is closely related to Japanese kabuki and Noh, and certain forms of Chinese theatre (kunqu, perhaps? I’m not quite so familiar), sharing many features, and it’s probably good to think of them in similar fashion – beautiful, colorful, elegant, elite art forms, with a deep tradition that people are working today to maintain, to continue.
Jishibai 地芝居 is a term they use for kabuki – I don’t know if they actually use it for kumi udui – but it refers to small local performances, often by amateurs, in a public plaza or civic hall or the like, often as part of a festival, but put on outside of the world of professional kabuki. Since the performers tonight were not amateurs from the local village, but were also not full professional actors from the capital, but rather are trainees 研修生 studying under the professionals, I’m not sure whether this is “jishibai,” but in any case, it certainly felt like it in many ways – while the acting, music, and dance were impeccable, and the costumes top-notch as well, the production surrounding it was quite standard, not top-level elite professional stuff, but just lights, mics, like you would any well-done local event; and more importantly, the small crowd, very close up to the stage, on folding chairs, with people coming around selling cans of beer for just 100 yen, very informal-like, while kids run around, alternatively watching and not, and while friends chat, etc. Now and then there were also kakegoe-like cheers shouted out, or whistles, to encourage actors on a dramatic entrance, or a dance or monologue well done. The environment was just incredible, with a big deigo tree rising up behind the stage and just the overall feeling of being out in the open air. Also, I think somewhere close nearby, wood was burning, filling the area with a wonderful smell.
Nanjô-shi, literally “southern castle city,” is a relatively new city, formed through administrative reorganization of what had previously been some number of villages with actual history to their placenames. The history of Nanjô is more or less nil. But the history of Sashiki, the village within with the Shinzato neighborhood (where the performance was) lies, is a long and interesting one, with connections to some pretty major historical figures, including Shô Shishô, whose son Shô Hashi founded the First Shô Dynasty – and the united Ryukyu Kingdom – placing the father, Shô Shishô, on the throne in 1406.
In any case, I’m not even sure what to say, except that this was a wonderful experience. The play, Nidû tichiuchi (二童敵討), is a very famous and popular one in the kumi udui canon, but is also thankfully quite short, meaning we got to listen to the whole thing before having to leave early. The story opens with the lord of Katsuren, Amawari (rendered as Amaohei in the play, as theatre is wont to do), boasting about the success of his scheme to engineer the destruction of his rival, Gosamaru, lord of Nakagusuku. He exits, and Gosamaru’s two preteen sons, Chirumachi 鶴松 and Kamiijû 亀千代, enter, talking about how they’ll avenge their father. They speak with their mother, who gives them each a short blade to tuck into their belt, and wishes them luck; they part sadly, knowing they might never see one another again. The two boys travel a long way, and eventually find their way to Amawari’s camp. The denouement is as classic as the overall framing of the rest of the short (45 mins or so) play: they present themselves as entertainers, and dance for Amawari, encouraging him and his men to drink and enjoy themselves. Amawari, enjoying the entertainments and feeling obliged by polite custom to reward the dancers with something in gratitude, gives them his swords, and then his fancy outer robes (which, I’m guessing, might be meant to represent armor) – had he been within his mansion, he might have gifted them other things, but as they found him outdoors, this was all he had on him to gift. The boys dance more, and a drunken Amawari joins them. Caught defensely and drunk, Amawari is driven off-stage by the two boys, who kill him (off-stage), and then return for a celebratory dance. The end.
All of the performers tonight were members of the Shii nu kai 子の会, a group of trainees at the National Theatre Okinawa, all of them men under age 30. They did an excellent job, really not amateurish at all. From the chanting to the dancing and stylized posing, to the music, it was really an excellent performance. Prof. Suzuki Kôta of Okinawa International University, an expert on kumi udui, gave a short talk, a Q&A session, really, before the performance, and then afterward was joined by two of the actors onstage for a second Q&A. I loved how this second Q&A revealed the real, human, personalities of the actors. In performance, they were stunning – seemingly perfectly practiced, expertly trained, professionally disciplined. But, to see them talk openly about how hot it is in the costumes, and how heavy the costume can be to wear; to talk about how this was only the third time Uehara-san had played Amawari, that he was used to playing other roles, and to see his gratitude and relief that it went so well, and that we enjoyed it; and also to see how nervous he was doing a Q&A like this – something he says he’s not at all used to – was in some ways perhaps even better than the play itself. Makes it so much more real, more relatable. These are young people, who’ve spent hundreds upon hundreds of hours practicing their art, but who otherwise are not that different from you or I – young people with an interest in, a love for, traditional arts, and who get hot, or tired, or nervous, people who are just sort of trying their best and are genuinely happy when you say you’ve enjoyed it. People who rag on their friends, and also encourage and help one another out.
Hearing them chant those lines, in that particular kumi udui fashion – not quite singing, like in opera or a musical, but not just saying them straight either like in Western theatre, but really sing-chanting it, like in kabuki, Noh – just put such a smile on my face. I eagerly look forward to listening to a fuller performance at the National Theatre – with full backdrops and all the bells & whistles – but, after tonight, I dare say this feels more real, and that, sort of second best. I can’t wait for the next opportunity to listen to such a small, intimate, local performance.
For anyone interested in seeing (listening to) the whole play, a National Theatre performance of it is available on YouTube, with Japanese subtitles, in four parts: