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“From ‘Amaterasu’ to ‘Mystery’: Part 3″ by journalist Sachiko Tamashige

From “Amaterasu” to “Mystery”: Part 3

Article by journalist Sachiko Tamashige

Iwami Kagura: Feeling the Heat and Beat in Shimane Prefecture


Yosuke Kusa admires Taizo Kobayashi, his teacher of Iwami Kagura (Iwami: a region, the west part of Shimane Prefecture/ Kagura: dance and music for the kami, or deities): “Taizo looks so cool when he claps his hands to pray for deities in front of the household Shinto altar. Even his everyday routines show his integrity, which is also reflected in his Kagura performance. Kagura is not just about dancing — it is also the way a performer lives their life.” Yosuke met Taizo at the Kyoto University of Art and Design when Taizo ran an Iwami Kagura workshop. Around ten years ago, he started visiting Taizo in his hometown of Yunotsu, Shimane Prefecture.

Taizo’s primary job is making masks for Iwami Kagura. In September of 2013, two cast members of Jamai — Yosuke and Shogo Komatsuzaki — spent two weeks at Taizo’s studio to learn the serpent dance, as well as experience life with the local people. Yosuke and Shogo tried to get to the heart of the Kagura by visiting local shrines, going for runs in the surrounding nature and exchanging ideas and music techniques through sessions with members of a local group of Iwami Kagura. “The local people live with the deities by practicing rituals to either purify themselves or show their gratitude,” Yosuke added, “Iwami Kagura is nourished and enlivened by the way the locals live their lives, and it has been handed down from their ancestors to future generations. Iwami Kagura is also a way for adults to teach good behavior and adherence to the social code to their children. I would like to learn not only the forms and techniques but also its spirit, which links our lives with our direct experience on stage.”

Mr. Kobayashi makes masks at the Kobayashi Workshop.
An array of Kagura masks await their chance to spring into action.

Shogo had a similar experience. He says: “What I have learned here is the significance of prayer. It has been so vital to pray for the intangible — something beyond a human being’s abilities: praying to the gods of rice for the plentiful harvest and the gods of water to prevent floods or drought. This is the heart of Kagura. It is performed in the hope of maintaining food, safety and happiness. I would like to grasp the deeper meanings beyond just dancing techniques.”

During the Meiji period, government policy revolved around modernization, and Shinto priests were banned from many of their rituals. Therefore, Kagura was left to the hands of the general public. In the Iwami region, Kagura has been so popular among the local people that they have developed their own elaborate presentation style. Orochi is one of the most famous themes of Iwami Kagura. In the old days, Orochi (“the Great Serpent Dance”) was performed by one person wearing a simple costume representing a snake. First, a huge tube made of bamboo forms the framework, like a snake skeleton. Then it is covered with the paper used for traditional lanterns, and the body of a giant serpent was introduced. The number of serpents increased and later visual effects such as flickering eyes and smoke were added. The performance of Orochi became more and more of a spectacle. At the 1970 World Expo in Osaka, an Orochi was performed with eight serpents, and Iwami Kagura became widely known, accelerating the level of drama infused into Orochi presentation.

“I am concerned that people might forget about the origin and essence of Kagura,” says Taizo Kobayashi, “It is a religious ritual dedicated to the deities. Today, some performers are more interested in how to dazzle the audience with spectacle and acrobatics, but if we neglected the traditional forms handed down by former generations and their true connection to the Shinto faith, Kagura would lose its meaning.” Taizo is one of the key people upholding authentic Kagura, and is a promising young craftsman of Kagura masks. He started his career at an early age. When he was an elementary school student, he started visiting the studio of Katsuro Kakita, the leading Kagura mask maker, and eventually learned the craft from him. Taizo left his hometown for Kyoto to learn more about mask making. After more than 10 years in Kyoto as both a student and then a staff member of Kyoto University of Art and Design, he came back to Yunotsu with academic knowledge and a wider artistic view. He passionately teaches and organizes Iwami Kagura workshops to spark interest and understanding in Kagura with younger generations. He is very popular in his hometown — when he walks the streets, children wave their hands, calling him “Taizo-san.” At a local nursery school, children play Kagura more passionately than anything else. When Kagura music starts to play, it’s like a switch is flipped in the children’s minds, and they begin dancing madly with paper swords and toy instruments. Most children here are more interested in Kagura heroes than the ones from television and cartoons.

Preschoolers embody various Kagura heroes.

At Tatsuno-gozen Jinja, one of Yunotsu’s local shrines, you will find the stages of many Kagura troupes from different areas. One evening in September, Tatsunogozen Jinja was packed with locals and visitors from nearby inns. It was a casual night out, with local families strolling to the shrine to see Iwami Kagura after supper. Visitors came wearing sandals and yukata, a casual cotton kimono worn after bathing in a hot spring. Everyone was relaxed and chatting away, but once the Kagura started, everyone was completely engrossed in the performance. Occasionally, demons and giant snakes would emerge onstage and enter the audience, which sent a few children crying or hiding themselves in the arms of their grandmother.

Kagura performed at night (yokagura) to a lively audience of locals
and tourists at Tatsuno-gozen Shrine.


“Most people tend to follow film stars and TV idols nowadays,” Taizo continued, “Some of them might be enchanted by the superficial images created by mass media. But Kagura is powerful — it connects directly with matters of life and death. Frightening demons and giant snakes are sacred beings. They make us aware of the importance of awe, and make us thankful to experience something beyond ourselves. Kagura themes deal with fundamental questions, so children are intuitively drawn to them. Without verbal explanation, there is space for children to feel and use their imagination. Therefore, they can be even more attracted by Kagura, I suppose.”

In different regions of Shimane Prefecture, many children are brought up with Kagura as a part of everyday life. The rhythm of Kagura permeates life in Shimane, and is sometimes considered as an impetus for returning to one’s hometown after years in cities like Tokyo and Osaka. Taizo is one of those young people who could not forget the excitement of Kagura.

Yosuke, along with Kodo staff member Erika Ueda, joined one of Taizo’s Kagura workshops at an art school in Kyoto. Since then, they continue to exchange ideas and inspire each other. It is crucial for Kodo members to develop close relationships with local folk arts performers and maintain ties with them. Most Kodo members are not necessarily trained from an early age as musicians in traditional fields like Noh or Kabuki. Therefore, Kodo members must inevitably learn different types of dances and music from different regions and then recreate them in their own original version as Kodo.

An advantage for the Kodo members is that they have a wider view. They experience many different folk-art forms in addition to stage and taiko technique. Through the artist-in-residence experience, they research the history and context of the folk arts with a comprehensive, intellectual approach reminiscent of anthropologists visiting far-flung regions.

Mr. Kobayashi teaches the serpent dance Jamai to Kodo members at Tatsuno-gozen Shrine in Shimane.
From left: Shogo Komatsuzaki, Yosuke Kusa, and Mr. Taizo Kobayashi

On the last day of their time as artists in residence, Yosuke and Shogo presented some of the popular Kodo repertoire to show their gratitude to Taizo and everyone they worked with. Yosuke and Shogo put on a soulful performance, and the audience was deeply moved.

“The Japanese word fudo means cultural climate,” says Taizo. “It is written using the Chinese characters for wind and soil. I think that soil symbolizes something rooted deeply in the region, while wind is like fresh air blowing in from the outside. To me, I believe Iwami Kagura is the soil, and Kodo is like the wind. It is so stimulating and rewarding for both sides to learn from each other. This will certainly lead us towards new discoveries.”

Just before leaving Shimane Prefecture, Yosuke and Shogo visited Izumo-taisha with Taizo and Erika. Izumo is regarded as home for the kami — in fact, many believe that all deities come back to Izumo-taisha in the autumn to discuss en: the fate of marriages and matchmaking. It is said that one-third of the Kojiki (“Record of Ancient Matters,” the oldest extant manuscript in Japan) is about Izumo, and that the legend of Yamata no Orochi originated here. The Hiigawa, or the Hii River, which runs through Izumo, frequently flooded the nearby forests, and the giant serpent might have been a metaphor for this dangerous stretch of water. When Yosuke and Shogo went down to see the bridge over the Hiigawa, it was a gloomy, rainy day, permeated by the eerie sound of the wind. Where the riverbed showed, the wind had carved scale-like patterns in the sand, not unlike the skin of a snake. Upon seeing this, Yosuke and Shogo looked at each other and shouted “Orochi is here!”


Also read From “Amaterasu” to “Mystery”: Part 1 – Guided by the mysterious power of the Serpent

Part 2 – Behind the Scenes of “Mystery”


Sachiko Tamashige, Journalist

Studied social psychology and journalism at Waseda University, art history at Sotherby’s and film anthropology at Goldsmith College in London. Worked for NHK, BBC, and Channel 4 etc. between 1990 and 2001 in London. Writing for newspapers such as Japan Times, newspaper weekly magazines such as AERA, monthly magazines such as Blue Prints, etc. specializing in contemporary art, architecture, design and Japanese traditional culture.

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