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Archive for the ‘Kumi Odori’ Category

Amawari makes his introductory monologue, in Nidû tichiuchi.

11/19/16

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.

A drunken Amawari dances with the two boys (nidô or nidû).

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.

Two of the actors being interviewed by Prof. Suzuki Kôta (far right).

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:

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I still have a few posts to post about our “field trip” day, but for now, I think it about time that I skip ahead and post the following, which I wrote on my last evening in Okinawa this summer.

The main worship hall of Azato Hachimangû.

Monday, Sept 20. Okinawa.

Boy, today was incredible. After doing some laundry, packing my bags, and otherwise just coordinating things to get ready to fly out tomorrow, I poked over to Azato Hachimangû, one of the Eight Shrines of Ryukyu, which turns out to be quite close to my hotel. Had things gone a little differently, I might have actually seen three of the Eight Shrines today – and having already seen four on my previous trip to Okinawa, that would leave only the one, Kin Shrine way up in Kunigami. But, even having not seen those other two today, it’s okay.

Azato Hachiman Shrine was quite small, and just sort of tucked away in a residential neighborhood. So, my trip there was quite brief, just a sort of check it off the list sort of thing. By then it was already 10am or so, maybe later, I don’t remember, and I was trying to catch a bus at 12:23, so I knew I didn’t have too much time to do too much else. I had been thinking of going to the Okinawa Prefectural Library, to try to see if I could take a look at some original (primary source) documents, or to at least see what was on the shelves and get a sense of some books I didn’t previously know about, maybe make some photocopies. But even just walking there and back might have taken up the great majority of the time I had, and looking at books or documents could very easily take far more time than I had.

So, I decided instead to head over to Sueyoshi Park, to try to see Sueyoshi Shrine, another of the Eight Shrines. The park is fairly large, and situated right between Gibo and Shiritsubyôinmae stations on the monorail; what I didn’t know is that the park is actually quite mountainous, that there are very few signs or maps once you get into the park, and that the shrine is way over on the far side. Of course, if I had bothered looking closer at my map, or at Google Maps, rather than just heading out, I might have realized this. But, that’s the way it goes sometimes. I got into the park, and just sort of took a path, up, knowing that shrines tend to be located at the top of hills more typically than lower down, and basically just taking my chances. The staircase ended at a dirt path roughly cut through the greenery… I decided to check it out, and soon found a small stone sign, indicating the site of a princely tomb called Ginowan-udun – just a sign, along a forested path, with nothing else of any ruins or structures immediately visible. Cool, I thought. Nothing much to see here; clearly nothing much remaining of the site, but cool to know it was here. But I kept walking, and a stony path emerged, along with an old-looking stone wall. So we’re no longer walking on just pure dirt any more. And then, then, I see a much more serious-looking stone wall, and a set of stone steps leading up through the wall. Oh ho. What is this now? I turn the corner and get a better look, and – whoa. A very large traditional-style Ryukyuan “turtle back” tomb. Wow. I’m not sure the picture does it justice. To stand there, before this immense thing, so relatively intact and so hidden amongst the forest of this public park, just sitting there, hidden… well, it was quite a feeling. And I certainly would never have found this site except just by luck, as I did.

I then poked around a bit longer, in the hopes of finding Sueyoshi Shrine, but eventually had to just give up, as I found myself all the way over at another end of the park, and yet still completely the wrong side, having never come across so much as a sign or pointer towards the shrine.

I made it back to my hotel just in time, pretty much, to catch the bus. I had left a fair bit of time, but after walking the extra three or so blocks to the post office, waiting in line for the ATM, walking back to the general area of the bus stop, asking at a major hotel right in front of the bus stop about just where exactly the bus stop was, how to pay for or get on the bus, and whether or not I need a reservation, and finding them utterly uninformed, I ended up finding the bus stop on my own with literally something like 1 to 3 minutes to spare. Fortunately, the bus came ten minutes late. So, yes, by the way, if you’re ever in Okinawa, and looking to get to certain parts further north, the Yambaru Express Bus is actually a really easy and relatively inexpensive way to get to Kakazu (Ginowan), Nakagusuku (that is, the Nakagusuku bus stop on the side of the highway; I’m not sure about how convenient this is for getting to the castle), Nago, Motobu, Nakijin, and Unten Port (and to the aquarium, I’d imagine). It doesn’t run too often – today, if I had missed my 12:23 bus, the next would have been at 3:something PM; and on the way back, there were buses at 4:20ish, and 6:05, which was the last one for the day. Glad I got a ride back instead of having to deal with that. But, you don’t need any reservation, you just get on, take a ticket that shows where you got on, and then a display screen on the bus shows how much you need to pay for each exit. So, for example, when I got on, the ticket showed a number 4. Then, when I got off at Nakagusuku, the screen said “1: 500 yen, 2: 450 yen, 3: 430 yen, 4: 430 yen” or something like that, and so I paid my 430 yen, or however much it was. So you just drop the right number of coins, along with your ticket, in the collection box on your way off the bus. It’s a nice cushy tour bus style bus, and takes the highway, so it actually goes quite quick – got me to Nakagusuku in 20 minutes. Going all the way to Unten will take the better part of three hours, and as much as 2000 yen (approx. US$20), but, still, it’s good to know that it’s so relatively easily doable – renting a car to get around Okinawa is not as 100% required as I had been led to believe. Now, sure, 3 hours each way doesn’t make for a good day trip, so I don’t know about taking this bus just to go to the aquarium, all the way from Naha, but if you need to get to Unten to take a ferry to Izena or Iheya Island, where you’re going to stay overnight (I’m told you kind of have to, the ferries run that infrequently), it could be worth it. Or, just to get up there to then mosey around that part of the island for some time…

Anyway, returning to my story of today, I had met Garrett Kam, a fellow UH & EWC alumnus, the previous week, and Garrett, a dancer of traditional Javanese and Okinawan forms, had let me know about a kumi udui performance going on in Ginowan, at 2pm on Monday (“today,” the day I’m talking about).

Right: a poster for an April performance of Yukiharai at the National Theatre Okinawa. This was the same performance, by the same troupe/school, which I saw that day in September.

Kumi udui, to put it quite simply, is the chief traditional theatrical form of Ryukyu. It draws influences from Noh and Kabuki, and to someone more familiar with those forms, like myself, it definitely bears resemblances to both, and fits somewhere between the two, featuring bold colored costumes like kabuki, but also very slow, drawn-out chanted speech, and subtle movements, like Noh. It also has some connections with Chinese and Southeast Asian forms. I had seen kumi udui before on YouTube, but never in person, so this was very exciting.

Ginowan City Hall, right next door to the shimin kaikan (Community Center) where the performance was held.

I got to Ginowan about an hour early; less, really, once one takes into account the time it took to hike up into town from the Nakagusuku bus stop, which is right on the side of the highway, near a highway rest stop. Still, I had some time to spare, so I stopped into a local bookstore called Miyawaki Shoten (now that I look up the website, I realize it’s a national chain, not even based in Okinawa), thinking, oh I’ll just see what they might have. Turns out Miyawaki’s “local books” (read: Okinawan history, culture, etc.) section is quite good, including full runs of several series I’ve only seen bits and pieces of before (e.g. a series of short, popular history 1000 yen books on each of the kings of Ryukyu), as well as other books I’d never come across before at all. Resisting the urge to buy more than I could fit in my luggage, I ended up with just one thing, a thin volume of the magazine Momoto, focusing on sites in mainland Japan related to the Ryukyuan missions to Edo (how perfect, given my research topic!). Momoto seems a really excellent magazine – each issue is quite short, so without actually reading them I couldn’t actually say just how thorough or actually informative they might be, but on the surface, they do seem to cover a good range of topics, with issues on Shuri, on Naha, and on Reversion (in 1972), though some of the earlier issues focus more on Okinawan lifestyle and the kinds of things that don’t really pertain so much to my interests. But it’s a relatively new magazine, just a few years old, and on the surface (yes, I am judging books by their covers. What of it?), they at the very least have very nice design aesthetic to them, plus I’m just taken, so to speak, with the idea of such an Okinawa-specific magazine.

I had thought about exploring the town a bit more, maybe trying to see something of the outsides of the highly controversial Futenma Air Base, which is right there, occupying the center of the town, and thus was never more than a few blocks away from the places I was today; I was also thinking of trying to make my way to Futenma-gû, or Futenma Shrine, another of the Ryukyu Eight Shrines. But, time was pressing, so I skipped all of that and just made my way to the Ginowan Shimin Kaikan (which they translate as Civic Hall, though it really means something more like “citizens’ meeting hall). Turns out it was not a public or publicly accessible performance, but rather a performance in conjunction with the annual meeting of the pension “friends” group of the Ginowan branch of a Japanese Agricultural Coops organization (JAおきなわ・宜野湾支店 年金友の会), or something like that.

Not really understanding what was going on, I went in and explained I didn’t have a ticket, and asked if I could buy one, and to my surprise, the fellow asked me immediately, “Garrett-san?” “Ah, no. Garrett-san’s friend,” I answered, and before I knew it I had been taken to the actors’ dressing room (!!). I spoke with them very briefly, and got to take some pictures and watch them put on hair and makeup, as they very kindly and generously allowed me to just sit there and watch as I waited for Garrett. I suppose I should have taken greater advantage of this, to stay longer and see more of the process (and get more pictures) – as it is, I only have pictures of some earlier / middle stage of the process, which is still super cool; I can’t imagine I’ll ever see such a thing backstage at Kabuki-za, for example. But I don’t have pictures of any later stages, or indeed of the costumes at all, since I presumed there were no photos allowed during the performance. Sadly, since it was this weird special private event, there are also no posters, flyers, or websites about the performance to keep to help remember it, nor to share with you.

So, I went outside to wait for Garrett, and he eventually came, and he was then invited backstage again, to say hello to the Sensei, who he had met some years before. I managed to tag along.

The show itself was interesting, and quite enjoyable, though considerably lower energy than Kabuki can be – in this respect, it’s not so much “entertaining” in a direct way, but rather something you appreciate, or try to appreciate, as a cultural expression, as a practice/performance of a traditional form. The story, a new interpretation of a relatively traditional story, was at its core about a young woman whose mother has passed away and whose father has gone off on official business. Her evil stepmother, very much in Cinderella-like fashion, forces the girl to do difficult household chores, in the snow, without an outer kimono (i.e. it’s quite cold). Why there’s cold and snow in a Ryukyuan play, beats me. But, she eventually collapses due to cold and exhaustion, sees the ghost of her mother, and is then found, collapsed, by her brother, and then by her father. I may be missing a few bits, but basically, in the end, the father gets upset with the stepmother, and makes to kill her, but is stopped by the children, and they all make up (somehow) and become a happier family, the end. The chanting and movements were quite slow, highly stylized, and minimalist, like in Noh, but of course quite different in style, coming out of distinctly Okinawan traditions, and being chanted in Okinawan language (Uchinaaguchi). The costumes, though, unlike in Noh, were brightly colored, and quite beautiful. The young woman wore a white bingata robe, covered in multi-colored patterns, and under it, a red underrobe, while other characters wore similarly bold costumes. The musical ensemble – sanshin, kutu, drum, and I think maybe a few other instruments, played classical (koten) Okinawan music as I am familiar with, though no specific pieces with which I am familiar. … I’m not sure what else to say about the piece exactly. I am quite glad to have gotten to see it, and certainly look forward to seeing more kumi udui in the future. At first go, it’s certainly not as captivating as Kabuki can be, but then, it was only on my Xth time seeing Noh that I first had a real sort of “experience” with it, having/gaining a certain insight, a certain appreciation, that I hadn’t appreciated before. So, maybe after seeing kumi udui a few more times…

A video of Garrett’s “Okijawa Hi Sigh” dance piece, combining Javanese and Okinawan elements. Thanks for filming & sharing this video to YouTube user angeline158.

Garrett’s friends Chiyo and Yuko-san then gave me a ride, driving us all to Okinawa University of the Arts (Okinawa Geidai), where Garrett shared one of his fusion Javanese-Okinawan (“Okijawa”) dances with the gamelan circle. I was quite thrilled to get to come along, having passed by but never actually been inside Okinawa Geidai campus, and more to the point, having heard – years ago – of the Okinawa Geidai gamelan group, which takes advantage of the musical similarities between Javanese and Okinawan musical forms, scales, and such, to play Okinawan music on the Javanese instruments. I don’t really know why, or how to express it, but ever since hearing about this, I just wanted to visit and meet this group, and perhaps even play with them, so badly. And today I got my chance. And not only that, but somehow I’d had an impression that this was a very serious group – this is Japan after all, and an arts university – and that any interactions with them I might ever have might be highly formal, and sort of exclusive – like trying to talk to them after a performance and them being, understandably really, too important and too busy to care what some random white guy grad student wants to say. Maybe I’m dragging this out too long, making too much of it. But, in any case, in the end, today at least, with the gamelan circle (a student club, not a formal class), it was just about as laid-back, friendly, and welcoming as could be. After Garrett shared his dance, we practiced trying to play that song a few times, and I actually got into it, despite having not played gamelan for several years; I’m no good at it, of course, but so long as you’re just repeating over and over, it’s not so hard to get into the pattern, and that’s where it becomes wonderfully meditative and kind of relaxing, as you just play 3, 2, 3, rest, 7, 5, 7, rest, 7, 3, 2, 3, …. going through X sets of four notes each, at a regular pace, and then repeating the whole X sets, around and around, as it gets a bit faster, and a bit slower, again and again, until finally coming to an end.

The Okinawa University of the Arts gamelan group performing a Tanabata concert, July 2014. The piece I’ve cued up here is a version of the classic Okinawan folk song Asadoya Yunta, performed as you can see on a combination of Okinawan sanshin and Javanese gamelan.

These are the kinds of adventures/experiences I dream(ed) of when I think about continuing my involvement in academia. To get to meet and speak with someone like Garrett Kam, who’s doing such exciting fusion work, and who is so knowledgeable and thoughtful about multiple cultures and about their co-mingling; to get to go backstage at a kumi udui performance at the Ginowan Shimin Kaikan of all places; to get to hang out and even practice with the Okinawa Geidai gamelan group… as I’m not as directly, explicitly, involved in the arts as some people are, who knows if these kinds of experiences or opportunities will come as frequently or as easily as they might otherwise, but here’s hoping that they do continue to come. In particular, if the Okigeidai gamelan group is indeed as laidback and welcoming as they were today, here’s hoping that if/when I find myself in Okinawa for a more serious length of time sometime, that I might be able to join them more regularly, practicing together, and just building networks and friendships, and some sense of actual belonging & involvement at such a place as Okinawa Geidai… what a thing that would be.

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Much thanks to the Okinawaology Blog for pointing out that a November 19 2010 performance of Kumi Odori (or Kumi-udui in Okinawan) has been made available by the Okinawa Times on YouTube.

Kumi-udui (組踊) is an Okinawan theatre form which originated in 1719, when Tamagusuku Chôkun (玉城朝薫), the Ryukyuan Magistrate of Dance (udui bugyô, 踊奉行), devised this new form of theatre in order to serve as a new form of entertainment for Chinese investiture envoys, come to Ryukyu to officially acknowledge, on behalf of the Chinese Imperial Court, Shô Kei as king of Ryukyu. Chôkun had previously spent time in both China and Japan, and Kumi udui definitely shows the influence of Noh and kabuki, and of Chinese theatrical forms as well.

It’s a beautiful display of Okinawan traditional arts, incorporating classical sanshin music, classical/literary Okinawan language, bingata and other textile arts and fashion, and of course dance.

Kumi Odori was just last month designated one of the world’s important “Intangible Cultural Heritages” by UNESCO. I have yet to see it in person, and somehow was under the impression that it was much less frequently performed, much less available, but apparently it is still performed, and I now hope to see it in person some day.

Nidô tichiuchi (二童敵討), the play seen here, was in fact one of the two first plays written by Tamagusuku Chôkun for that first performance in front of the Chinese investiture envoys. It tells the story of two boys, Chirumachi (鶴松) and Kamijû (亀千代), who seek revenge against Amawari (阿麻和利), lord of Katsuren gusuku (Katsuren castle), for the death of their father, Gosamaru (護佐丸), lord of Nakagusuku.

Basically, the legend goes that Amawari, desiring more power and territory for himself, and with his eye on the throne, told the king that Gosamaru was plotting to overthrow him. Amawari was given command of the king’s forces, with which to attack the supposed traitor Gosamaru. The latter, out of loyalty to his king and kingdom, refused to fight back, and committed suicide in his fortress of Nakagusuku. Amawari’s schemes were soon discovered, however, and he was executed.

I must admit I have yet to watch these YouTube videos of the play, so I am not sure how the theatrical version of the story goes, but, here it is, with subtitles in Okinawan and Japanese, but not in English, I’m afraid:

A brief summary and explanation:

Scene 1: The Appearance of Amawari

Scene 2: The two boys leave their mother (to go execute their revenge plot)

Scene 3: Amawari’s Outing, and the Revenge (First Half)

Scene 3: Amawari’s Outing, and the Revenge (Second Half)

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