Sunday, March 13, 2011

Happiness amidst tragedy -- traditional Japanese entertainments

A while ago the Japanese embassy here in Qatar announced an evening that featured traditional Japanese performance art, to be held at the Museum of Islamic art this evening. I definitely signed up because while I am a bit familiar with some types of Japanese performances (Noh, Kabuki, tea ceremonies, etc) I had not heard of either of the types that would be performed this evening. With the current tragedy of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan there was talk of canceling the event but in the end the Japanese ambassador decided that it should go on. In his opening speech he pointed out that the purpose of these entertainments was to entertain and bring laughter, something that was sorely needed in these sad times. We did observe a minute of silence for the victims of the disaster.

There were three performers, doing two different types of traditional Japanese art:

Two of the performers demonstrated Rakugo (Japanese comedic storytelling). The storyteller sits on a small stage and tells a long comedic tale with many characters, using changes in facial expression and voice to switch from character to character. Traditionally he is only allowed two props -- a fan and a small piece of cloth. The first performer, Shumptei Shoumatsu, gave a demonstration of Rakugo, the props, the basics of the art, and then performed a dance doing first a male and then a female dancer, putting the small cloth on his head to represent the switch to the female dancer. You didn't really need the cloth the change in the dance style and his moves clearly indicated the gender. The second Rakugo performer, Sanshotei Charaku, told a tale of a boatman, who is not very good at his craft, taking two passengers across a river. The story was in English and he was quite good. We were surprised at the end when during a Q&A we found out he didn't know much English at all. He had memorized the story in English for the performance!

If you would like to see a Rakugo performance just search for it on YouTube, I believe there are a few videos including some performances done in English.

The other performance was Japanese paper-cutting, called kamikiri. The performer takes a sheet of paper and cuts intricate designs and characters out of the paper while chatting to entertain the crowd. It is common to do requests (various animals, etc) and the kamikiri artist performing for us, Mr Hayashiya Imamaru, could also do portraits of people and detailed scenes. Every time the final product typically took a minute or less yet the intricacy of a lot of the shapes were astounding. Some people in the audience were gasping at what he managed to cut out of a piece of paper so quickly (e.g. three men drinking sake under a cherry tree). He had also previously cut out a number of smaller figures which he handed out to children in the audience. There also were examples of his work outside the performance hall, these were more intricate and done with many different colors of paper. Some of them looked like Japanese paintings.

The Internet is a wonderful thing and I was able to find a video of a kamikiri performance, and it turned out to be Mr. Imamaru! Watch and enjoy:


Magnus said...

BTW, where in Japan was Matt living?

Glen McKay said...

Not sure now but he grew up in Kobe. Last I knew he was in Shizoka (near Mt. Fuji). Can't see him living north of Tokyo.