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.

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