Monday, December 09, 2013

Musings on Kodo's "Mystery"

Yesterday I had the opportunity to see "Mystery,"  the newest performance by Kodo.  The experience was made doubly enjoyable since I went with a friend who was a former Kodo apprentice.  It has been five years since I last saw Kodo live,  and was quite looking forward to it. 

I had read that "Mystery" would be a counterpart of sorts to Kodo's previous "Amaterasu,"  which I saw back in 2006.   Besides my love of taiko, I was especially intrigued with the show since it would be dealing with themes that have long interested me, namely the ancient spirituality of Japan.  (That said, the next section is simply my own interpretation, and may be miles away from what Artistic Director Bando Tomasaburo had intended.) 

The show opens with a darkened stage, in the days before there was a "Japan."  A handful of figures come out with lights on their heads, bending occasionally to plant rice.  From this first piece, the female members of Kodo would be featured prominently throughout the first half, perhaps as a nod to a time when the archipelago consisted of little more than loosely connected clans, a time when shamanesses held a pivotal role.  This would become more explicit in the piece "Namahage," in which three women make reverent offerings to the wild deities whom they encounter in the wild.  Up until now the stage had been lit only by other performers carrying had-held lamps.  At some point, a spotlight begins to light the action, perhaps the coming of the Sun Goddess Amaterasu herself.  Then we get more conventional overhead lighting, as the Shinto cult brightens and comes to the fore.  Many of the pieces in this first act have tints of the music of Southeast Asian, a region which may have been the cultural source of these early shamanistic clans of that time. 

The second act begins a similar vein, in dim lighting, with a handful of women at the center of the action.  Suddenly, they encounter a Chinese lion, which begins to shake and dance.  At first, the lion chases the women, but then eventually they begin to run after it, perhaps a reference to the coming of culture from the Asian mainland, embraced to such an extreme that the older ways were eventually subsumed within.  From here, it is all a show of strength, the male Kodo members coming to the fore, blowing us away with their power.  And thus it builds into what my aforementioned friend laughingly refers to as "The Man Show." And due to this power,  Japan's championing of society and culture over darkness is complete. 

Musically, the show is incredible.  The speed on which the performers play Katsugi-Okedo, especially on the closing piece of the first act, is ridiculously fast.  (I've seen my share of taiko performances, but have never seen such rapid stick work.)  The movement and dance choreography has similar perfection.  The performers never cease moving.  Even on the more static numbers, there are a lot of flourishes, a lot of twirling sticks.  I was intrigued too by how much of a foreign element there were to the more recent compositions.  Some of the vocals in the first act sounds almost medieval European.        

Perhaps the biggest surprise was how few of the performers I recognized. (The members of Kodo that I actually know personally were nowhere to be seen, with the exception of Uchida Eri, who happily has grown into a central role in the group.)    Perhaps Bando had hoped to utilize this youth as a means of accentuating a time when the culture and beliefs of this country were still developing.  But the young performers are beyond the development stage, and demonstrate already an air of mastery with every strike of the drum.  Which in itself cuts both ways.  This perfection of both playing and movement demonstrates the strength of Kodo's apprentice program, yet it is dangerously close to creating almost cookie-cutter performers.  Nearly everyone looks the same,  no one member is particularly distinctive.  While Kodo has always been an ensemble, a collective, right down to living communally,  previous members brought something individual to the performances.  Many of those older members are now teaching workshops, or are performing collectively with non-Kodo performers across various cultures and performance styles.  I feel somewhat doubtful that this young generation has the ability to exude enough unique and individual creativity that will help them stand out from the others, and hence go on to pass that creativity to others, as their elders are currently doing.  I hope time proves me wrong.

Kodo's magical "Mystery" tour with continue through the spring, including dates at Kyoto's Minamiza on May 30, 31, and June 1. 

On the turntable: Jefferson Airplane, "Ignition"

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