Cats galore

Masks, photos, miniatures, sculpture, prints and other artwork are on exhibit at a tiny house-turned-gallery, tucked away in an alley like a fairy-tale secret.
The theme: Cats.
Even the musicians performing at the opening are cats, wearing fuzzy head-gear complete with glowing LED eyes
Mino on reeds and trumpet, who made the giant cat heads, is one of the exhibiting artists.
I bought a figure he made of a Master Cat, posed in a welcoming gesture.
It has wires for whiskers and a disarmingly wise yet innocent look in its eyes.
Mino, who plays in a band called Kumonosu Quartet (not Kronos Quartet, mind you), seemed happy I bought his piece, though it was a bit hard to tell under the cat head with only his lips showing to play the instruments _ and talk.
“Do you like cats?” he asks, the obvious question to ask in this setting.
“Yes, I do,” I said, relieved I can be honest and have what I think is the right answer.
“Have you ever had (katteta) a cat?”
“Yes, though I don’t now.” Still relatively relieved.
“What kind of cat?” he asks in his soft warm voice, not probing, just expressing proper interest.
“His name was Pyonta, and he was all black.” Yes, he was a beautiful cat, and why hadn’t I thought about Pyonta lately when a cat is so utterly important with all the fascinating features a cat possesses _ so childlike and self-centered and lost in its own world, yet so giving, shrewd, instinctual. So total. But I don’t say those things.
“My cat is a tabby, and the name is Nyangoro,” Mino offers with a smile. “There’s no special reason for the name, except that it cries that way _ nyangoro.”
We share a laugh.
“Do you like other animals? I also like dogs,” I continue. “Some people say people who like cats don’t like dogs, and people who like dogs don’t like cats, but I like dogs and cats.”
Lo, behold, we agree again: “I like dogs, too,” Mino says.
The Kumonosu Quartet play at the Crocodile in Harajuku April 19.
Mino (at left in photo) has an exhibit at Gallery Yoyogi March 31-April 5.
Do you like cats?!?
Neko sukidesuka??!!

Bunraku/Poetry with Music

Bunraku is Poetry with Music at its Highest.
The singer is just about standing on his knees to groan, shriek and growl out the story from deep within his guts, his face growing redder with intensity.
The shamisen player adds just the right touches of bangs, strums and plings, working as much as staccato percussion as mood-evoking strings.
Then there are the puppets.
They add an unreal transcendental dimension as there’s no pretense at hiding the existence of the puppeteers _ mostly very old men who look nothing like the dashing samurai or lovely princesses they play _ in full view on stage.
The men look amazingly beautiful and impeccably in control, barely changing their solemn expressions as they delicately manipulate the puppets, making it look easy, breathing in life to the lifeless puppets with their artistry.
The interview I did with puppet master Minosuke Yoshida is one of the most memorable profile pieces I ever did as a reporter.
The stunning thing about Bunraku artists is that most start at 6 years old or so and have made the art the center of their lives.
No wonder they exude that almost mystical quality.
I took the day off to catch Yoshida at the National Theater in “The Miracle at Tsubosaka Kannon Temple,” first staged in 1879.
Yoshida plays a simple but selfless wife of a blind shamisen player, whose blindness is cured in their deaths because of the purity and sadness of their love.
Yoshida says the moment he loves is when a puppeteer picks up the puppet and it suddenly takes on life.
You’d have to be backstage as he was as an apprentice to catch that magical moment.
But if you’ve ever seen a puppet sitting on a stand, you’d know how boring and, well, doll-like the thing looks when it’s not on a master’s arm.

The Naked Summer

A movie about a summer dance workshop led by Dairakudakan.

Metamorphosis is probably the most exciting event to witness, and that’s exactly what happens in “The Naked Summer,” a film that documents what happens to about 30 youngsters who take a Butoh dance workshop led by Akaji Maro of Dairakudakan in Hakuba, Nagano Prefecture, in 2003.
They jog, cook meals, giggle.
But something extraordinary is about to happen.
Exercises in Butoh are designed to teach the novice the methodology of the dance by confronting those Butoh moments of existence.
Tatsumi Hijikata, the founder of Butoh, is supposed to have said that Butoh is the dance of a corpse.
Students of Butoh were told, as the legend goes, to become a horse, or become a dog, or feel as though their body were covered with ants, and question why your head should be on top of your neck, to achieve the slow, tense and jagged movements that characterize Butoh _ the self-proclaimed antithesis to Western dance.
Watching the youngsters tackle the assignments is fascinating:
_ Feel the space around your body, touching every fingertip, air moving like gel.
_ Sense a tragic accidental moment, even something minor striking, like a splinter piercing your foot.
_ Run and keep laughing.
_ Walk slowly, sliding your feet across the ground, while keeping your head level.
They practice and practice with a passion that’s laughable in its purity. They grimace, stretching and squeezing their facial muscles. They squirm on the floor like worms. They flap their arms, bend their bodies repeatedly, they do lifts until their backs hurt. They collapse on the floor in exhaustion.
But in the act of doing, zenlike, they become Butoh dancers.
The weeklong workshop culminates in an evening performance at an outdoor theater.
When the boys get their heads and eyebrows shaved off, the transformation is almost complete.
The youngsters cut cloth, using patterns, and sew bikini panties _ the sole items of costuming.
By the time they nervously don makeup, painting their bodies with gold paint, they are already strangers, animals from hell trapped in sinewy bodies of Buddhas.
The movie juxtaposes footage of the professional troupe’s performances with scenes from the workshop.
And that’s an eye-opener.
Having watched the novices struggle akwwardly with the simplest Butoh moves that we have seen so often performed effortlessly by the professionals, we now appreciate with more intensity the experienced dancers’ chiseled bodies and controlled movements.
Maro’s body at 60 has never been so stunningly beautiful as we watch him smile, crack jokes, lecture and gaze on with wisdom at those who are trying to take up this legacy of Japanese postwar art.
We know he knows he is running out of time to leave that understanding to the young, and we witness Maro’s recognition of his inevitable death and his sense of urgency.
We are also struck by how unique, definitive and awesome Butoh is as an art form and how it is relevant to the world today and the future these youngsters inherit.
Still, the movie, directed by Kenji Okabe, intentionally doesn’t bother to give the participants’ names, backgrounds.
They are blurs of faces.
They came and they lived a week as Butoh dancers and they will never be the same.
That’s the story this movie wants to tell.
A regular documentary might have gone back, asking some of them for a reaction, demonstrating their return to the everyday.
Instead, the movie simply shows another summer has come _ jogging and exercising under the sunlight is another batch of kids who has come to be reborn as Butoh dancers.

Taiko anyone?

If you’ve always been curious about what it’s like to bang on those Japanese taiko drums, a one-day beginner’s class is being offered by Amanojaku Saturday, March 29 2 p.m.-3:30 p.m. at Tokyo Geijutsu Gekijo, just outside Ikebukuro Station West exit in the basement rehearsal room.
5,000 yen (2,500 yen for elementary school children).
For the more ambitious, learn Bujin, Amanojaku’s signature chudaiko tune, 4 p.m.-5:30 p.m., or the giant Odaiko from 6:30 p.m.-8 p.m. (both 7,500 yen; English speaking instructor _ my son Isaku _ on scene).
TEL: 03-3904-1745

Isaku’s page gets new look

Isaku Kageyama has updated his Web page at
Sunday Nov. 11, his taiko drum group Amanojaku performed at a 20th anniversary concert for Ayutsubo Daiko in Shizuoka.
Amanojaku leader and Isaku’s master teacher Yoichi Watanabe has taught taiko in the U.S. and Brazil, but his oldest students are right here in Japan.
The group performed a new piece by Watanabe based on a “matsuri” rhythm.
Three drums were placed on a fancy metal scaffolding _ a big one on top and two next to each other on the bottom.
And four drummers played the drums from each side.
The tune is funky with a lot of drive as it moves into several grooves evocative of “iki/hip” Tokyo festival music that brought to mind mikoshi shrines, colorful floats and shouting crowds.
It’s a celebration of the Japanese community, a thanksgiving for life, the harvest, and family.
My story on Isaku.

Meaning of moment

I saw Saburo Teshigawara for the first time about 20 years ago when I was still a reporter at The Japan Times.
He was emerging _ and very dramatically _ as a star of Japanese contemporary dance.
Now, in his 50s, he still stands, in so many ways unchanged.
His piece for his troupe Karas at the New National Theater is titled “Substance.” But it’s more about life/death, a statement from an older, wiser Teshigawara facing the inevitability/approach of Death.
For two hours, we were transported to a Moment when the daily drudgery/pettiness/greed no longer mattered.
And all that mattered was the Question.
Moving before us _ strangely frail and powerful at the same time _ he flapped his arms, contorted his torso, part rag doll, part clown, part victim, part angel, sometimes appearing to not breathe at all while at other times panting til we breathed with him.
He was just as austere and pure _ and giving of himself as ever.
But perhaps he was growing (I hoped) a little less hard on himself.
At least absent was the bloody, and so painful just to watch, self-mutilation of banging into scattered broken shards of glass, a trademark of his earlier pieces.
We are all lost in a dark urban chaos of loneliness and shapes without meaning.
And all we can do is writhe about and breathe, in and out, in and out.
At one point, the fluorescent lights hanging from above rolled out toward the audience, leaving us suddenly in a cold skeptical spotlight:
What are you doing? How have you lived your life? Who are you?

My son and taiko

Photo by Naokazu Oinuma: Isaku Kageyama of Amanojaku.
Every parent should have a stage to boast about their child/ren.
I got to do it recently with an AP article for our online service for young readers asap.
It was a special writing/reporting experience, and I learned a lot about my son.
Music is a way of expressing/exploring identity.
For Isaku, taiko is an important way he can feel comfortable about being marginal _ never being quite all Japanese or all American.
It’s all the same in the end.
Art helps us cope with pain.
But it also links with Something larger than life.
Isaku’s bilingual blog
Amanojaku’s DVD of a recent concert went on sale earlier this year. To get yours, contact Isaku at:

The power of Amanojaku lies in the composing by the group’s founder, leader and creative force Yoichi Watanabe.
Every Watanabe tune is a narrative _ a trickling stream turning into dashing ocean waves, a dirgelike tune that’s a testament of parental love, a samurai flashing his/her sword in determined battle.
Watanabe’s storytelling is effective because taiko is not only dramatic but also based on nuance _ a feeling in reverberations _ and evocative of sounds from nature and other universal associations.
Watanabe also has that genius sensibility in matching rhythm patterns with truly “kakkoii” moves that are so Japanese.
He also juxtaposes Japanese rhythms with standard Latin beats in intelligent ways so it never becomes gimmicky.
I love that moment when the drummers, one by one, tap out a Latin rhythm in a transition section of “Dotou.”
At the end of that segment, when the drummers flick their drumstick against the circular side of their taiko, and then OOOMPH! dive right into a groove, it just feels soooo good, like something jerking your insides probably where your intestines attach to the bottom of your stomach.
You just have to be there.
I’ve been to their concert so many times, but I still wait for that moment.
Amanojaku on YouTube

Taiko is for the Japanese what conga is for Latin culture, djembe is for African music and traps drumming is for American jazz.

What one Brazilian youngster has to say about what taiko means to him:
Bruno Takao Murakami, a 23-year-old third-generation Japanese-Brazilian, who has been studying with Amanojaku for nearly two years, says taiko has helped him feel proud of his Japanese ancestry.
“Isaku sensei is one of the best teachers I’ve ever had,” he says. “I like his spirit and the way he looks at taiko.”