Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Seichō Awa Odori

If you've ever spent any time around Awa Odori enthusiasts, a word that will often come up is seichō (正調), most commonly in description of an individual team's style. Tokyo Ebisuren, the team I'm a member of, is an example of a seichō team (but not necessarily a good example...).

The word can loosely be translated as formalised, classical, orthodox, or if you want to get really extreme, purist, but I don't think any of these really capture the true meaning of the word though. In fact, I don't think even a description in either language would ever really do justice to its true meaning in this context.

At its essence, it represents a concept that is beyond articulation.

Yet, its meaning is widely understood. Seichō teams know that they are seichō. Those that aren't know that they aren't. It is politically neutral, so it is neither a badge of pride, nor its absence a cone of shame. It appears to merely represent a simple preference.

Despite this, the seichō teams in Tokushima are afforded considerably more validity than the non-seichō teams. So what's it all about?

After five and a half years, I can so far conclude the following:
  1. Seichō is about being 'true to the roots of Awa Odori'. That's no less vague really is it. Actual dance styles have changed considerably since the dance began (whenever that was), and in fact, they've changed considerably just over the past decade. Services such as YouTube have enabled performers to get instant visual feedback of their own performances, both as individuals and as a team. The knock on effect has been huge in terms of consolidation of styles, precision and coordination!

    * When pressed, experts have conceded that being 'true to the roots of Awa Odori' boils down to using the Yoshikono Bushi melody, which I'm sure you're all already familiar with.
  2. Seichō is not so much a state of being, but an aspiration. Thus, a seichō team only ever strives to be seichō.
However, there are a number of areas that most seichō teams have relatively in common. In no particular order, these are:
  • Instrument and musical choices. Seichō teams rely exclusively on traditional Japanese style instruments, with only minor variation between them. Likewise, music is predominantly in the Japanese scale, and has a slightly syncopated beat.
  • Pacing of performance. Seichō teams constantly strive to achieve a harmonious balance. For every loud, high tempo aggressive part, there's an equally quiet, slow and serene section of comparible length. Much of the performance is of moderate tempo and volume.
  • Dance styles. Seichō teams try to reflect the higher ideals of the traditional Japanese aesthetic, as found in other performance arts such as Kabuki, Nihon-buyo, Noh etc. This is a whole subject by itself, but there are many rules regarding composure, the balancing of motion with stillness, and the animating of nuanced emotional expression into a heavily restricted physical form.
Whether any of these points make the style 'true to the roots of Awa Odori' is beyond me, but I find they do make for a much more enjoyable experience. Art styles require internal rules and restrictions, because when you decide to intentionally colour outside the lines for convenience of expression, then you have to stop and question whether we really even need the lines at all? And why stop there? Next time you see a government funded art project containing nothing but a pile of bricks, that's why you colour inside the lines.

A similar discussion can be found among sushi chefs in Japan, whose ideas about what constitute sushi differ considerably from those of the staff and customers of many heavily exoticised 'sushi' restaurants around the world. If the food tastes good, then it's all good, right?

And likewise, similar discussions can be found about journalism. There are those that strongly believe journalists should strive towards objectivity in reporting, and there are those that believe objectivity can never be achieved so there's no point even pretending to try. But as long as the news is entertaining, it's all good, right?

So goes the argument.

Monday, 27 July 2015

Performance Report: Kitamachi Awa Odori

As expected, Saturday was hot! Around 35° in the afternoon with high humidity. And from the looks of things, performers and spectators alike were dropping like flies!

Thankfully, I was well prepared, and most of my team came out unscathed. Plenty of liquid throughout the afternoon and a couple of salt tablets per hour kept us in good condition.

The parade routes were still long and tiring, mind you. And it was still very very hot. As with every year though, the spectators lined the sides of the roads and very enthusiastically cheered us on, fanning us as we passed. It's hard not to put on your best performance.

The routes at Kitamachi also haven't changed since previous years. One long stretch of road is divided into two parts, with performers starting at each end and progressing towards the centre. As one is noticably shorter than the other, it additionally curves and heads up towards the station. After reaching the goal line of one, we walk round the backstreets to the start position of the next and enjoy some cold tea before restarting. We probably do more walking here than any other festival, and it really fills out the time.

Unfortunately, after our third parade, we moved on to the start position of the next parade route, only to be told there wasn't enough time for us to perform again, so we had to walk all the way back to the gym hall we'd got changed at from the furthest possible location, nearly a kilometer away. That's a long way when you're carrying heavy equipment...

All in all, a successful night. Next stop is Nakameguro Natsu Matsuri on Saturday, and Nabeyoko Natsu Matsuri on Sunday. Nakameguro has the longest parade route of our summer season, a whopping 350 meters, mostly uphill, and with frequent stops while teams in front perform routines. Last year, we were performing that route for about 30+ minutes continuously. Nabeyoko is much kinder, and a total of just three teams. Both have a great atmosphere and enthusiastic crowds!

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Kitamachi Awa Odori

Just a few more days to go now before Kitamachi Awa Odori this coming Saturday, near Tobu Nerima station. This is another of our regular events, popular with both spectators and performers, and notably different from last week's Kyodo Matsuri in several key areas.

  1. This is primarily an Awa Odori event, so there are a lot more teams.
  2. The roads are much wider, giving a lot more space to perform, and a lot more space for spectators to set up camp and relax with a delightful beverage and some grilled chicken.
  3. The roads are also much longer. Kyodo averages 180 meters from start to goal line, whereas Kitamachi is closer to 280 (which is still far from the longest...)
  4. It is very very hot.

This last point came to become a serious issue a few years back, when I had to drop out part way through for fear of heat stroke. I was fine in the end, but missed out on the second half of the performances. Since then, I've been sure to take necessary precautions ahead of time to prevent a repeat.

One such precaution is to ensure I'm properly hydrated throughout the afternoon. Thankfully most rooms we're provided to change in (over the course of a couple of hours) have some kind of air conditioning which takes a lot of the edge off. Kitamachi, unfortunately, does not provide such a place. A local school lets us use their gym hall, which has excellent airflow, but you're still contending with the humidity. A two litre bottle of tea (not water) that is sipped from frequently gets me off to the best start.

The other precaution is a supply of salt tablets which I keep on my person. They're not actually tablets of salt, but more like a solid sherbert sports candy containing salt and other minerals lost through sweat. What often happens is after a particularly gruelling portion, I'll find myself parched, but no matter how much water or tea I gulp at the provided water stations, I feel no less thirsty. What I found is that in such situations, it may feel like I'm thirsty, but what I really need is salt. Crunch on a salt tablet and I'm instantly better. Another cup of water to wash it down? No, I'm good. What always surprises me is just how quickly it works. It's literally the moment I crunch into it, everything is suddenly well with the world and I'm good to go.

Alternating between sports drinks and water can also be effective, though the option isn't normally available, unless I want to spend all my money at vending machines.

Now, having reviewed video footage of last week's festival, there are a few parts of our staged piece that I wasn't quite happy with. I'll be setting aside a bit of time before we begin to try and get everybody cleaned up, so we should be able to open with a nicely polished routine.

The festival goes on from 18:25 to 20:30 this Saturday evening, about 30 seconds walk from the south exit of Tobu Nerima station. You won't regret it!

Photography

A lot of people think of me as having been an Awa photographer before I was a performer. This is partially true, in that I took photography seriously as a hobby and occasionally photographed Awa Odori performances at Koenji and other events, but 'Awa photographer' is far too grandiose a title for me to claim.

The real Awa photographers are a dedicated bunch, and it's a real privilage to call many of them my friends. Every festival I attend, whether it's pouring with rain or scorchingly hot, I get to meet the same photographers time after time. They know who all the teams are, they know many of the individual performers, they know the routines....

They also give up their own time to get some amazing photographs, and for the most part they let us use their photographs free of charge for any reason we like, including our own publicity.

And true to the art, each photographer has their own style and leaning that they add to the mix. Some are adept at capturing the human energy of the performers and their environment, others at capturing the beauty and form of the dance. Some take images that are visually striking, while others are more documentary in nature. The styles are almost as varied as the dance styles they shoot, and getting to see them in the days and weeks after a performance is always a joy.

One thing many have in common is a disproportionate number of pictures of me floating high in the air while shouting. It's a very specific image that comes up often.
2013 Kitamachi Awa Odori
Very specific!
Photo: Ken'ichiro Sugiura
With all that to one side however, two very specific styles of photography emerge, which very few photographers ever seem to mix. There are those that shoot from the spectator’s viewpoint (which on a parade portion will almost always be off to one side looking in), and there are those that shoot from within the performance space. Both bring their own unique challenges and rewards.

Spectator viewpoint photography, assuming an unimpeded view, significantly limits your creative options such as framing. When done well, the pictures can be both striking in their own regard, and still recreate the enjoyment of the spectacle.

Performance space photography offers a lot more freedom of movement, from which the photographer can exercise a wider range of creative options. When done well, it’s conducive to high impact images that people would pay to see displayed in galleries. However, many festivals require a permit which can be difficult to attain. The individual photographer must also be wary of the responsibility that comes with the freedom, specifically to the audience. The moment you step foot in a performance space, you become part of the performance, so you owe it to the audience not to impede their view and enjoyment of the performers any more than is absolutely necessary to get the pictures you require.

Most of the performance space photographers I know are real life ninjas. They plan their moves carefully, and at the last second they appear out of nowhere, get the specific pictures they want, and then disappear into a figurative puff of smoke. It’s an impressive act to watch.

But with that said, most of my favourite pictures have been from spectator viewpoint. It's simple logistics really—the audience is off to one side, so that's the direction we target our performances at, and therefore the direction you'll get the best angles from.

Monday, 20 July 2015

Performance Report: Kyodo Matsuri

Despite the weather forecasts constantly shifting their goalposts, and rain ultimately continuing right up to kick-off, it cleared up just in time for the opening.

2015 Kyodo Matsuri
Ready to go, just.
That's not to say it went off without a hitch though. We, and a number of other teams, normally use a local temple to change into costume and undertake other preparations. This year, the temple was closed, that is to say, demolished, and in the process of being rebuilt. Another building connected to the temple was made available for our use, but was even more cramped than usual. One team even got changed under the stairs outdoors. Still, can't grumble—they were kind enough to let us use it, so we didn't have to get changed in a back alley like we do at one of our regular festivals.

Additionally, the performance schedule was changed around at the last minute, so rather than doing a couple of road parades before performing on the elevated main stage, we went straight to the main stage with barely a moment's notice. Unfortunately this meant that some of the details had yet to be ironed out, and I think we can all agree that mistakes were made.

2015 Kyodo Matsuri
"That didn't hurt much."
Photo: Ken'ichiro Sugiura


In spite of this, I decided to try something a little bit different this year. There's a comedic element we put into our stage piece to break the tension and it normally gets a few laughs. To prevent the act from stagnating, I threw in a "carefully staged" fall which ended up with me laying on my back with my feet in the air, while a bunch of people whacked me with fans, by way of pointing out my error. It got a very positive crowd response, which means I probably have to do that every time now, and this raises concerns as to whether or not my staging it was just a fluke. It didn't hurt, twice, and I need to keep it that way.

Other than this though, both parade and stage piece portions went smoothly, and we were able to progress straight from the start line to the goal line each time without holdup. The crowds seemed more impressed with us than usual, which I'll put down to the months and months of practice we put in.

Next stop, Kitamachi Awa Odori on 25th, which with wider and partially sealed off roads and twice as many teams performing, is an entirely different experience altogether.

Friday, 17 July 2015

Kyodo Matsuri

2014 Kyodo Matsuri
Photo: Takanobu Yanagihashi
Tomorrow is our first major festival performance of the year, Kyodo Matsuri.

It's one of our regular annual slots, and particularly popular for its elevated and well lit stage, that protects us from the one element that occasionally threatens to, literally, rain on our parade.

For the road portions of the performance, there's a real sense of closeness to the crowds—the high street really is quite narrow. But all the better for soaking up the enthusiasm.

The festival itself goes on all weekend, but the parts we're involved in are from 7pm to 9pm on Saturday 18th. The nearest station is Kyōdō Station on the Odakyu Odawara Line.

Sunday, 12 July 2015

About This Site

2014 Haneda Airport
Photo: Ken'ichiro Sugiura
I've been learning and performing Awa Odori since early 2010 with Tokyo Ebisuren, a team based in Shibuya, Tokyo. I've been in charge of leading and teaching the otoko odori (men's dance) for around 3 years now. It's an enormously rewarding hobby, and one of those artforms where the more you learn, the more you realise you don't know. It requires a lot of dedication and discipline, and hard work with frequent muscle fatigue all year round.

Every festival I've performed at has had a significantly exaggerated representation of visitors from other countries watching from the sidelines, and I'm often approached by people to ask what's going on, what it's all about. People from around the world, it seems, see Awa Odori for the first time and they're instantly hooked, but it's very rare to see any actually getting directly involved.

It occurred to me that there just isn't that much information about Awa Odori available in English. General information you can find on Wikipedia, sure, but that barely even scrapes the surface. It also only talks from the perspective of an outsider looking in, and gives no sense of what it's like to actually participate in the festivities first hand.

So that's where this site comes in. My team's summer festival season for 2015 begins this coming weekend, so I'll be sharing some of the experience here.

Enjoy!