Kagura: Dance to the Gods

Welcome travelers. Today I would like to take you on a short trip to Japan to see and actually experience an ancient dance ritual known as “Kagura." Kagura is a dance that has been performed in Western Honshu, the main island of Japan, since ancient times.

Kagura is a “purification” ritual and a dance to thank the Gods for a bountiful harvest. Personally, I enjoy Kagura much more than I do Kabuki, or the other styles of traditional Japanese dance; as Kagura is quick, it is full of singing and dancing, and is exciting to see. I guess the best explanation of Kagura I could give you would be to ask you to imagine a cross between indigenous American Indian dancing and a Broadway Musical. If you can imagine that, then with today’s article, we’ll watch a real Kagura performance together.

The God of Wind from Kojiki. When he opens the bag he carries on his shoulders, it lets loose the winds.

There are many types of Kagura dance. Today we will see a dance called “Tsuri no Onna” which means, “The Fishing Woman." Well, that’s the best translation I can make of this. After you watch this enjoyable show and hear the moral of the story, perhaps you can think of a better title than I can.

But first some background: Long ago, many of the Kagura dances originated from an ancient Japanese text called, “Kojiki” which was written in the 8th century and it is quite reminiscent of Greek or Roman Mythology. The book included fables about Gods and the Land of Clouds — which we in the west would call heaven.

Kojiki is important for a study of Japan as it is the earliest surviving text written entirely in Japanese. This, seems to me, would most probably mean that a Japanese woman, most likely a priestess, wrote this book — as it is known that women created at least one of the three alphabets used today in Japan.

Kojiki is a fantastic piece of literature concerning early ideas about the origins of Japan and the Japanese people. The stories in this book formed a large part of how ancient Shinto religion and, in turn, how the Japanese viewed themselves for centuries.

One of the first stories told in Kojiki concerns Amaterasu the Goddess of light. In the story she becomes sad and hides herself in a cave, leaving the entire world in darkness. The other Gods beg her to come out of the cave, but she refuses. Finally, the other Gods decide to trick her by making such a racket by singing and dancing outside, that she peeks from the cave to see what the commotion is about; and when she does, the other Gods grab her and pull her from the cave, thus restoring light to the world. (I have read explanations of this story by scholars who believe that this was an attempt by the early priests to understand a solar eclipse. And also to reinforce the belief in the people that song and dance restore balance to life.)

Kagura dances are all a dance and musical interpretation of stories like the one about Amaterasu. They are all a colorful treat and quite exciting for children and adults alike. At times some of the Kagura performers like to get the crowd involved in the show. It can be quite surprising and somewhat frightening to the little ones, but it is definitely a memory that will last a lifetime. I know that if I was a little boy, this might scare the pants off of me, all the while my parents and their friends would be roaring with laughter.

Through the years, Kagura has evolved. And that’s one of the reasons I find it so enjoyable. Whereas Kabuki and Noh still practice very ancient dance and use language that’s even unintelligible to modern Japanese, Kagura constantly changes and makes stories that even mock today’s society using traditional means.

The costumes are passed down through the generations and are gorgeous; and they represent the passion and love that the Japanese from this area have towards this traditional style of dance. The shrines where Kagura are performed at are thought to reflect architectural types going back to times preceding the introduction of Chinese culture in the 6th Century.

Oh! But it looks as though the show is about to start! So open the door and enter with me into the fantastic, and sometimes frightening, fantasy world of the Japanese Kagura dance; don’t forget to take off your shoes!

Of course, adult beverages will be served as well as drinks for the little ones. There will be all sorts of traditional foods available. Also you are kindly asked to refrain from smoking in the auditorium as there are smoking areas available from which the performance can be viewed.

Today’s Kagura show is a bit different than most. In today’s show we can see the traditional musicians who make up the core of the live music. The actors on stage, as well as the drummer on the right, will banter back and forth in song and conversation taking us through the story. The drum is called, “Taiko” and let me tell you, this guy really goes at it! This is some hard work. Of course all the performers on today’s stage are professionals.

And now the story begins: Long, long ago, in a village very far away, there lived a wise, young, handsome prince. This prince was good to all the subjects in his kingdom, and the people all loved him. Even though the prince was wealthy and had everything he needed, he was so lonely and bored with his life. Everyday he wished he had a partner to share with and to give his love to; he wished for a bride. Though he searched far and wide, he could never find the one who could fill his heart with love.

Even so, the prince never lost hope. He was a very religious man and he prayed to God every night to send him a beautiful bride.

One morning, when he awoke, there was a strange fishing pole in the prince’s room. The prince was so surprised to find such a thing in his house and wondered where it came from. “Aha!” he thought, “It must be a magical fishing pole!” The prince began to wonder if this magical fishing pole was sent to him from God.

“But isn’t that strange?” He thought. All this time the prince had been praying for a bride and yet, he surmised, God must have sent him this fishing pole. Why?

“There must be some reason!” He sings.

Also in this town there lived a young, foolish man named Taro. Taro was considered hopeless by the other village people. None of the town’s people wanted to give Taro a job because he failed at everything he tried to do. Never-the-less, the prince being a good-hearted soul, felt sorry for the young man, and gave him a job doing simple errands around the castle.

Upon discovering the fishing pole and contemplating its purpose, the prince summoned Taro to his quarters. Taro, the fool as always, stumbles onto the stage and says, “What do you want from me, master?”

“Fetch me that fishing pole!” says the prince.

“What fishing pole, master?” replies Taro.

“That one, right there! In the corner!”

“Where? I don’t see any fishing pole!”

The prince gets impatient at the foolish young man and says, “Oh, alright. I’ll do it myself!”

“Do what yourself, master?” asks the simple minded Taro.

And as the prince gets up and walks to the left of the stage, he picks up the pole. When he does, he finds that there is something very heavy on the other side of the line. The prince pulls and pulls until he returns to his seat at the right side of the stage. In the middle of the stage is something covered in beautiful red silk. What could it be? The prince pulls off the red covering and finds a beautiful princess.

“Oh! Now I see!” says the prince, “God sent me this magical fishing pole so that I may “catch” the love of my life!” The prince and princess fall madly in love at first sight and they go off together to celebrate and have a huge feast where they drink, dance, and get married.

In the meantime, Taro witnesses what has occurred and becomes sad; for he is lonely too.

“Why can’t I find a beautiful princess to marry me?” he asks.

“I know! I’ll use the fishing pole and catch myself a beautiful bride too!” Taro, his heart full of mischief, tries and tries, but all he can ever catch are strange fish and octopus.

“Hmmm?” he harps, “I must be doing something wrong!…” Taro ponders what he does different than the prince and then realizes that he is fishing from the wrong side of the stage. He runs over to the left of the stage and begins to fish. Suddenly, he gets something very large on the end of the line. He becomes so happy and excited.

“I’ve caught her! I’ve caught her! And she will be more beautiful than even the princes’ bride!” He shouts. Taro pulls and pulls with all his might as he brings his treasure to the middle of the stage.

He can hardly contain his excitement when he unveils his “beautiful princess” only to see that she is not a beautiful princess; she is just an ordinary, “homely” girl.

“No!” Taro shouts. “I don’t want an ugly woman. I wanted a beautiful young princess!”

“I’m so sorry I am ugly! Please take me!” she begs. But Taro refuses. And Taro begins to shout as the poor girl begins to plead. Soon their conversation turns into screaming and crying.

Suddenly, the kind prince reappears on stage. He stands in the middle of the arguing couple and says, “Please stop fighting. Try your best to get along. For fate has put you two together, you must make every effort to work things out.”

In front of the prince, the two promise to get along. The girl is happy that the prince has intervened for her. And being an honest girl, she intends to keep her promise. But Taro, being the foolish young man, lies to the prince and has no intention of even trying to get along at all. When the prince leaves, he decides to get the girl so very drunk that she will pass out and he can run away.

Taro begins sweet-talking the girl and giving her Sake. Taro only acts like he is drinking and he tricks the girl into drinking more and more. Finally, after just so much Sake, the poor girl passes out. Taro laughs and sings:

“Are you asleep?”

No answer.

“Are you sure, you’re asleep?” He asks again. The entire audience laughs at Taro’s stupidity. Then, after making absolutely sure she has passed out, Taro the young fool, runs away.

Later, the girl awakens, still somewhat drunk. She laughs and sings:

“Taro! Oh! Did I sleep so well!… Oh, that was such fun!… Taro!? Taro, where are you?…” She begins to realize that she’s been left all alone.

“Oh! My Taro has left me!…” And she sobs uncontrollably, “Why am I so ugly and unwanted?” She continues to cry as the stage goes dark.

Suddenly there is thunder and there are flashes of lightning. God appears. And God says to the girl:

“You believe in me and you have faith in me. So, in return, I will give you a present.” And then God throws a long red “obi” to the girl (an “obi” is the wrap-around cloth used as a belt for a kimono). The obi falls to the ground and God disappears and with him, the stage grows silent.

“A present for me?” The girl sings softly. When the obi falls, the girl quickly runs over and picks it up and wraps it around her waist. As she spins around on the stage, we can’t see her face. But when she turns around, her face has changed. Her singing has also changed. She no longer sings like a wistful young girl; she sings loud and strong. Her heart has changed too; until this time she was always a girl filled with insecurity; now she has become a woman with confidence. She bellows:

“I made a commitment. I made a promise. I am now a woman. I have value and I have grace. I will now find that foolish Taro and make him keep his promise too!”

And with that, she is magically lifted into the air. The drums go into a frenzy. There are singers backstage that sound so ethereal that it makes you have goosebumps; it sounds like we are entering heaven. Slowly the girl begins her ascent into the skies; in her search for Taro. She knows what is rightfully hers and decides to take what she wants.

From high up in the heavens, she can view the entire area. She searches and searches for Taro, but she cannot find him… Finally she sees him. As usual, he is doing nothing and wasting away his life.

“Oh what a young fool!” she sings, “He could be so much more if he had a smart woman and a partner to help him, and to grow with!”

Then she remembers her magic obi and flings it towards the earth. The music frantically builds into a crescendo.

“Oh! I have caught the right man for me! And it is Taro!” She exclaims. And she begins to pull on the obi, bringing her down to earth. The music grows still and distant.

She lands to the earth as Taro struggles to get free, but can’t. She drags him to her feet. Taro realizes that it is the girl he tricked and ran away from. He is so ashamed that he cannot bear to look at her face. He has disgraced himself and now everyone in the village knows he broke his promise to her; as well as the promise that was made in front of the prince — who, everyone knows, is a man close to God.

“Oh forgive me!” muses Taro, “I am but a fool!”

The girl sees that Taro regrets his actions and begins to feel somewhat sorry for him. She serenades:

“It’s alright, Taro… I forgive you.”

Taro peeks up from his cowering position and notices that the girl’s face has changed. She has grown beautiful. He thinks out loud:

“Is this really the same girl? Her face has become so gentle and kind…”

Even so, through their relationship, Taro runs away three more times. And three more times the girl uses the magic fishing pole to bring him back.

Each time she casts, she reels in the wayward young man; and each time Taro is so ashamed of himself that he always has to get on his hands and knees to beg for forgiveness.

Of course the girl realizing that, like most young men, Taro is but a young fool; she forgives him. And each time she forgives him, Taro gets a better look at her and realizes that she has become more and more beautiful each time.

Taro finally realizes that she is indeed a very beautiful girl and asks her if he may stay with her forever.

The beautiful girl takes Taro by the hand and they kiss. As they walk away, we notice that Taro’s face has also changed; he no longer looks, walks, and acts the fool; but he looks like a handsome, wise, young man.

And they lived happily ever after.

And that’s the end of the play. The audience claps and the stage grows dark. Of course, the performers come out on stage for one last bow, and to hear shouts of “Umai!” (Bravo!)

Now what is the moral of this story, I wonder? Hmmm, I guess this could mean many things to many different people. Matsumoto Gen was the writer of this particular Kagura dance. If he is still alive, I’d imagine he must be about 80 years old. According to him, this story is about how, in this modern day and age, women are more aggressive, and forceful; they will actually make demands of their men. Whereas, in Matsumoto’s youth, that was completely unheard of — especially in Japan!

I guess, for me, this story means that when we are lucky enough to find a good partner who will love us and accept us for what we are, in-spite of our sometimes stupid and reckless behavior; we had better take a good, long, hard look at that person, before we run off and do something we may regret later… Because we may not be forgiven and taken back.

Most modern Kagura performances are supposed to mean different things to different people.

What does this story mean for you?

For today’s performance, I’d like to say thanks to my wife, Yuka, for helping me to translate this story into English… Yuka claims that this story means two things: Women are smarter then men. And; I can’t do anything without her or without her permission — and that’s the key to our happy marriage.

Perhaps. But I won’t “rain on her parade” for the moment by arguing with her about that. I will allow her to think she is the boss and “play my aces” when the time is right. But for now, I have to go and cook dinner.

Until the next performance — the curtain is closed. Thank you so very much for attending. We hope to see you next time.

Political Theatre

LRC Blog

LRC Podcasts