Monday 31 August 2015

Performance Report: Koenji Awa Odori

Koenji Awa Odori, as you most likely already know, is the largest festival of its kind in Tokyo, and this year was its 59th birthday. Each year, the number of teams and performers have been steadily increasing, making it by far the most diverse in style. Of course, it's also increasingly crowded, which can make it quite frustrating for spectators who face difficulties finding somewhere from which to view it, and even more difficulty in getting to such a spot.

As performers, we're mostly shielded from the crowds, but it does also mean being paddocked in to a large extent.

Koenji Awa Odori
A good turnout
This time, we had a number of special guests from Tokushima Ebisuren who flew in especially to perform with us. Among them were 5 otoko odori, 2 onna odori, and 2 shamisen players—it was nice to hear the shamisen again, as all of our own are temporarily assigned to drums, quit, or missing in action. Of course, this meant we had to prepare and bring along 9 extra costumes, but that was a very small price for the value they brought.

Four of my temporary teammates were people I'd trained and performed with in Tokushima quite recently, and the other I was already friends with from years back, so this made it much easier to get everybody organised. Everyone on both sides was cooperative and helpful, and I think the sense of solidarity came across in the performances.

One of the things I like in particular about Koenji is that several of the stages are modelled after the Tokushima stages—wide enough to move, and "jumpers" heavily discouraged. I saw the festival staff dealing with people who were encroaching on the performance space quite harshly on a number of occasions, which is most likely in the name of safety—all participants this year had to sign up for a mandatory insurance, but I don't know if this was a result of something happening during a previous year or not.

But I digress, the widest stages tend to have the most enthusiastic crowds, so we like to show them something special if we can. Because of the sheer numbers of teams though, any team that stops to perform a routine causes a caterpillar effect holding up all the teams behind, so it's been heavily discouraged in recent years. As it turned out, some space had opened up behind us at all the larger stages so we were able to stop and give a short set piece without causing a fuss. Similarly, as we approached the final goal point, I checked behind us and there was a space of maybe 30-40 meters open, so I gave the signal to perform an "abare" routine, a very high paced wild dance with jumping and shouting which is a huge crowd pleaser. Typically we start from a triangular wedge formation, and when the music speeds up we all run in different directions, leaping into action. Always nice to give the audience what they want!

Update: It seems a Mr Philbert Ono captured the precise scenario I just described on video.

We managed to complete 5 stages in total during the three event hours, but the final whistle was blown as we were preparing to begin a 6th. I was happy with the 5 we performed though, and the presense of our guests really motivated us and raised the bar of our individual performances.

We finished by taking our guests out for a celebratory dinner, which ended the day on a high note. Early departure for me though as I had to get my costume cleaned and dried for the next day.

Friday 28 August 2015

Koenji Awa Odori & Shinjuku Awa Odori

After a fairly quiet couple of weeks, we have another two day weekend starting tomorrow.

Saturday evening from 5 o'clock it's Koenji Awa Odori: three hours of parade style performance, with spaces ranging from super wide Tokushima style stages to narrow poorly lit backstreets. This year we have some special guest performers joining us.

Sunday evening at 18:30 and 20:30 we're performing at Shinjuku Awa Odori, a popular izakaya-style restaurant that has live shows each night. Also, good food and drink at a reasonable price, so drop on by, though you may wish to phone ahead as it fills up quickly. I did say it was popular!

One of the hardest things about a double packed weekend like this is not the muscle fatigue so much as the preparation. Washing, drying and ironing an entire ensemble of costume parts is surprisingly time consuming. Just as well it's summer—hanging them out at night pretty much guarantees they'll be dry by morning, and we have a very effective dehumidifier in case of rain.

Costume is a whole blog post by itself, and one I plan to go into at a later date. Needless to say there's something of an art to it, and it's certainly a lot more involved than putting on a shirt.

Tuesday 18 August 2015

Performance Special Report: Tokushima with Ebisuren

As I'm sure you all know already, the main Awa Odori event in Tokushima takes place between 12th and 15th August, rain or shine. This year, by special invitation, I was able to join in the festival in the garb of one of the biggest name teams in the country, Ebisuren!

Ebisu vs Tokyo Ebisu Outfits
Can't deny there's a similarity...
As the name may suggest, there is some connection between Ebisuren and my own team, Tokyo Ebisuren. They've certainly made themselves available to provide advice and assistance over the years, but there's currently no formal affiliation, which is what made the invitation something of a big deal for me. In the nearly six years I've been learning Awa Odori, the opportunity to perform in Tokushima with Ebisuren as one of their own has been something of an ambition I've had from the start.

Now, Tokushima is pretty far away, and at the height of its tourism season it's not easy to find accommodation, and especially not of the reasonably affordable type, so we ended up entering via Takamatsu in Kagawa Prefecture, staying in a kind of local varient of a bed and breakfast the first night, a shrine the second night, and flying out of Tokushima on the final day. This meant I got to perform on 13th and 14th.

And probably just as well I didn't stay longer. It was absolutely exhausting!

But from my limited two days of experience, I noticed a number of significant differences between the main Tokushima festival and the various Tokyo festivals, which I'll briefly outline in no particular order as follows:
  • Parade grounds are much shorter, wider, well lit, and the audience are seated. Mostly they're situated in riverside parks. Despite the shorter length, I found them to be much more exhausting, which I put down to a number of factors: the shorter length meant I could concentrate my efforts rather than pacing myself to preserve my strength; there was room around me to move—Tokyo performance spaces are often quite cramped allowing insufficient room to give a full performance range; audience expectation was very high, as was the level of expertise of all my team mates, and I certainly wasn't going to let the side down.
Plenty of room, and check out those whites—kind of bluey white...

  • Number of performances are fewer than in Tokyo, despite the longer time frame. Some Tokyo festivals have us perform up to 7-8 times within a two hour window. In Tokushima we only performed 3-4 times over a four and a half hour period. This meant there was a lot of time to enjoy the festival as a festival, eat food from the stands, drink beer, chat with other guests etc. A lot of the time was spent carrying drums from one end of the city to the other, which was really quite tiring though.
  • No water. This was a big deal for me. It meant I was burning through money trying to stay hyrdrated.
  • Team captains dance at the front. This may only apply to the big name association teams, but there's an expectation that team captains will lead the procession behind the giant lantern. This just isn't seen in Tokyo.
  • 徳島新聞写真映像部
    I'm in there somewhere...
    Photo: Tokushima Shimbun Shashin Eizobu
  • Soh odori. The very last event of each evening is a grand finale called the soh odori (general dance). Here, a whole bunch of the association teams parade through together, filling the performance space entirely. It's impressive to watch, and it's always the sounds of the many many shamisen that gets me. What's less well known is how chaotic it is behind the scenes as people with megaphones are trying to get everybody in with some kind of dignity. As I'd gone from having a third of the width of a performance space to myself to only a sixth, it did feel more like a Tokyo festival. Very cramped! One cute detail is the ritual of "cleansing" the performance space before the finale. This is done by a local university team called "Rererenoren" who are modelled after a very minor character in a long running popular cartoon series. It's a curious dance they do, and this year they were accompanied (perhaps unwittingly) by one of the best Awa Odori flutists I've heard, from about 1 minute in on the above linked to video. 
  • Wa Odori. This is similar to the set pieces we have in Tokyo. Everybody forms a large circle and the performers come on in groups and do a part each, but it seemed to me to be more relaxed, more like the B side of a record. There's a lot of humour to it, and a lot of trying out of new material to see what works. Generally it's a lot of fun. I was suddenly asked to perform with the rest of the out of towners for one section, with the instruction to play it by ear. That seemed to work out ok.
That's most of the chief differences. All in all it was a great experience, and one I can hopefully bring some lessons back to Tokyo from.

Calling it a night

My next performance isn't for another couple of weeks now, Koenji Awa Odori on 29th August. Returning the favour somewhat, several members of Ebisuren will be joining us in our costumes, to help give our team a little more impact. Which ones they are you will have to work out for yourselves.

Monday 17 August 2015

Performance Report: Shimokitazawa Ichibangai Awa Odori

Despite taking place during the hottest weeks of summer, Shimokitazawa this year was unseasonably cool and dry. This meant that it was much more pleasant to perform in, and also that we had a larger crowd than most years.

Indeed, last year's performance started just minutes after typhoon related torrents cleared, and the streets were practically empty for the first half of the event. This year there were so many people watching that we had to parade single file in places.
2015 Shimokitazawa
Photo: Tokyobling
The festival itself went on from 6:30 to 8:30, with the last half hour taken up by a set piece in a prime location. That earned us a lively crowd who were more than willing to join in for a finale.

All in all another successful performance. Next stop for me personally is Tokushima, for something a little bit special!

Tuesday 4 August 2015

Performance Report: Nabeyoko Natsu Matsuri

Nabeyoko Natsu Matsuri is probably the most laid back festival we attend. As the Awa Odori portion only features three teams, there's a lot more flexibility over the precise timing and positioning of our performances. And as a former team member has a shop in that particular high street, it's a good excuse to hang out and enjoy the other festival elements a few hours ahead of time.

That doesn't mean it wasn't in its own way gruelling though. It wasn't quite as hot as the night before, but it was pretty close. And due to that flexibility I was waxing lyrical over not one paragraph earlier, it's very easy to overdo things. Indeed, we began at one end of the street and warmed up for several minutes as a way of attracting interest, paraded for 100 meters, did a full set piece, then paraded for another seven or eight minutes (mostly on the spot), then did some freestyle performance on the spot, and finally paraded the final 30 meters to the goal line, all without any opportunity to replenish fluid levels.

Despite such minor issues though, the parade area is plentifully wide, and comparitively short, each stretch no longer than about 180 meters. Having the freedom to move around as needed is strongly motivating, especially in front of a good crowd like we have at Nabeyoko.

We finished as we often do with a final set piece, a few bonus parts, and then invited spectators to join in. Many did, and they all soon gained a fresh appreciation of how much effort goes into it. Many stayed behind after to chat with performers which is always welcome.

With the performances over, it was nice to gather back at the shop and enjoy some food with cold beer that was laid on for us. Another job well done.

Monday 3 August 2015

Performance Report: Nakameguro Natsu Matsuri

Having finally solved with some reasonable success the problem of dehydration, now it's just the sheer heat and fatigue I have to contend with. But despite the temperature being the mid 30s, Nakameguro Natsu Matsuri went off without a hitch.

In fairness, we did have a number of fortunate factors on our side. As previously aluded to, Nakameguro has three routes with lengths varying from 170 meters to 350 meters. We started at the shortest, and worked our way up, which gave us plenty of time to get warmed up. We had an additional advantage that as the first 100 meters or so of the longest route is all but empty, and a large gap had formed between us and the team ahead, we were instruted to RUN! This shortened it significantly enough that we could breeze straight through the rest of it.

We also had one of the prime spots for our final set piece, right in front of the station. There was already a good crowd gathered, and the humorous elements of our setup resonated well.

As usual the spectators were very enthusiastic, which is always encouraging. At times though, some were a little too enthusiastic, as compared to most events, there were a considerable number of 'jumpers'.

Very very dangerous!
As with photographers, it's good form to try to avoid entering the stage area during a performance unless unavoidable or specifically invited. I really cannot stress this enough, but interrupting a performance in progress to take a 'selfie' with the performers is very dangerous, and not just to yourself, as many of the costumes allow only limited peripheral vision, and the routines feature fast movements in directions that can't always be seen. The performers are relying on their own coordination and well rehearsed teamwork, and if you enter their space during a performance, you might suddenly find somebody's foot in your face because they weren't expecting anybody to be there. You may also cause them to injure themselves.

And if they do happen to see you, and you're right in the way of where they need to be, is it really fair to make them alter their highly polished routine, damaging the experience for the rest of the audience, just to accommodate you?

Please be mindful when enjoying these performances.

All in all though, this was a very successful event, and I look forward to returning next year.