His first dance with the bulls

by Mayumi Saito

Last October, one Japanese graced the covers of several local newspapers in Huelva, Spain. Taira Nono made headlines in his debut fight by kneeling on the ground and confronting the bull. It was a breathless moment for 2,000 spectators. The newspapers praised the Asian bullfighter’s bravado and discussed his odds for success.

That kneeling performance, known as porta gallora, doesn’t require sophisticated skill — only guts and perhaps temporary insanity. One false move when dodging the bull or changing the cape-grabbing position can be fatal. Often displayed by beginner bullfighters, the act is, as Nono himself puts it, “nothing more than desperate self-advertisement.”

Porta gallora could easily symbolize the risk-taking lifestyle of the 31-year-old Tokyo native. He is the third Japanese to pursue the dream of becoming a bullfighter. It started after he happened to see a TV documentary about bullfighting when he was 20. He had given up his ballet career due to a back injury. The sport’s ballet-like movements, coupled with a dangerous tension, spoke to him. The impulse never faded and finally drove him to Spain eight years later.

Nono traveled to one city after another, looking up bullrings listed in a magazine and relying on a Spanish conversation book to communicate. Upon arriving in the port town of Huelva, 80 km west of Seville, he asked local bullfighters in his broken Spanish, “Is there a bullfighting school?”

“At first, I thought he was a tourist,” recalled current coach Miguel Conde, to Barcelona-based writer Tomo Iida.

Nevertheless, the bullfighters’ circle welcomed the stranger into their training routine.

Customarily, bullfight training takes place without a bull. Partners take turns playing the bull and fighter roles.

Under the scorching Andalusian sun, Nono gradually nurtured a bond with the local bullfighters.

In 1998, Nono enrolled in a newly founded bullfighting school and was able to train with real bulls. He attended the school for two years, while waiting to obtain a work visa and a bullfighting license before his debut in Huelva.

In October 1999, Nono finally won a berth for his debut at a second-class bullring. However, he faced another challenge: Three days before the big day, he dislocated his right shoulder while training with a young bull. Although everyone around him assumed his absence, Nono insisted on “making it to the fight,” he says grimly, “and then get killed.”

Nono ignored the local doctor’s orders and found another medic outside the town, who gave him the go-ahead.

On the day of debut fight, Nono was injected with a painkiller just before the entrance march and thrilled the audience with his gutsy porta gallora. At the opening ceremony, he expressed his gratitude to his host father Joaquin Sanchez.

“It was a natural thing to do,” Nono explains. “I could have been dead on the street of Spain if I hadn’t met him. He let a stranger like me stay in this house and took care of everything.”

After Nono stabbed the bull to death, the audience waved white handkerchiefs while applauding his performance. The bullring president awarded him a bull’s ear, the equivalent of a medal. In bullfighting, the quality of a performance is determined by the audience’s response, rather than scores. If the audience cheers louder, the president will give another ear. If they are still unsettled, a tail is given. The number of ears and tails acquired indicates a fighter’s competence and popularity.

“Bullfighting is an art form,” Nono says. “I’d like to develop my basic skills now and eventually perform a dangerous move that a Spaniard wouldn’t dare.”

Bullfighting used to be a pastime of aristocrats, who often killed a bull from a horseback and distributed the meat to the peasants. The current style was established in 18th century. Hungry for fame, ordinary youths competed in the ultimate test of bravery.

Such bravery remains the pivot of bullfighting today, with little discrimination to seniority or gender. That’s probably why, wrote Iida in the overseas education magazine CAT, Huelva’s bullfighters accepted a foreigner with open arms.

Nono’s debut fight is only the beginning of the four-10 years required to reach the star bullfighter class of matador. He now belongs to the bottom of the three ranks, novillero sin picador. Another foreigner, who recently debuted is a 32-year-old Roman Karbohin, a former Russian Air Force captain. He reportedly gained his skills while working as a forklift driver.

Nono and Karbohin must raise 300,000-500,000 yen for each fight at the bottom class without pay. Bullfighting is hardly a lucrative profession for beginners. Even among the matadors, only 30 in Spain can make a living from bullfighting.

Nevertheless, Nono is aiming for the top. The bullfighter’s summit is the Las Ventas bullring in Madrid, where only eight bullfighters have gained tails. Nowadays, it’s said that even perfect performances don’t garner a tail. Nono says his goal is to become the ninth bullfighter. “And guess what?” he says. “My name means ‘ninth’ in Spanish.”

This year’s bullfight season started in March, yet Nono is now temporarily back in his home city of Tokyo, working hard as a delivery man to raise the necessary funds. Asked to explain his passion, his reply is simple: “I enjoy fighting the bull. And I like the challenge.” Needless to say, he can’t wait to get back to Spain.