‘Blast!’ comes marching back with a ” from its Tokyo drummer

by Nobuko Tanaka

Special To The Japan Times

“It was my hugely fortunate destiny to come across ‘Blast!’ and, as I am 39 this year, I would like to perform it with a heartfelt ’39′ message [because, in Japanese, three is san and nine is kyu, which is phonetically 'thank you'],” Tokyo-born percussionist, composer and performing director Naoki Ishikawa declared with passion.

“Blast!” is a Broadway-style performance centered on a version of a drum-and-bugle corps from the American Civil War (1861-65), together with brass and other percussion instruments and a color guard. The show, which also features dancers, was created in the early 1980s by an Indiana-based, business-minded aficionado named James Mason, though it only really took off worldwide after its 1999 premiere at the Apollo Theatre in London.

Following that, “Blast!” launched on Broadway and won Tony and Emmy awards in 2001. Then it toured further afield, triumphing in Japan in 2003 before being performed here every year from 2004 to ’09. It then returned in 2012 to play in all the country’s 47 prefectures — a feat it is now set to repeat through Sept. 7.

Nowadays, Ishikawa mainly works in Japan, but it was when he was living in America from the age of 13 that he met his “fortunate destiny” after his father’s job took the family to Chicago, Illinois.

“My father wanted me to directly experience American culture, so I went to a local school, but as I couldn’t speak English at first I enjoyed doing lots of things that didn’t need language skills, such as playing soccer and baseball, doing gymnastics and joining an orchestra and a marching band. Then I got deeply involved in the marching band, especially drumming, and stayed in the United States for 13 years.”

While he was studying at the University of Tennessee in Chattanooga, Ishikawa honed his skills as a percussionist and won several awards. Then, in 2000, he approached the “Blast!” company and was hired.

Elaborating on that period, Ishikawa delivered an illuminating take on American culture, explaining, “Just as baseball players are stars at Japanese schools, American football games are the highlight of their school events over there. So everybody also gets to see to the traditional marching-band performance during the halftime show, and people respect good ones a lot.”

However, though he mostly grew up living happily in America, Ishikawa said he never forgot he was from Japan.

“When I joined the ‘Blast!’ company, although there could be 60 people on stage, audiences remembered my face and name because I am Asian-looking and was obviously different from the others — but that was lucky for me.

“And as well as my music, I was also proud of being Japanese, because I supposed my determination and sensibility came from my Japanese nature. For instance, Americans usually don’t worry too much, so if they made any mistakes on stage they don’t take it really seriously, whereas my serious attitude worked well for my career, I think.”

But Ishikawa said he has a lot to thank America for, too, including learning how to debate in a group. That ability, which he acquired at school in his teens but would likely never have learned in Japan, has worked to his advantage in companies such as “Blast!”

“There, conformity is one of the most important elements, as group harmony creates extra power and make a bigger live impact,” he explained. “So, discussions in rehearsals are essential to creating a great performance, and because of what I learned at school I normally don’t hesitate to voice my opinion. Consequently, I’m happy to discuss with my colleagues as much as it takes.”

Back in 2003, when the first “Blast!” tour reached Japan, Ishikawa moved here but, while performing as a core member of company, he also expanded his working base. This led to roles as a drummer in many popular shows, including the musical “Endless SHOCK” starring the leading showbusiness idol Koichi Domoto, which has been revived at regular intervals since 2005.

Meanwhile, he was also busy composing music, producing and directing — along with teaching at schools and workshops — as he strove to spread marching-band culture in Japan.

“I especially want to teach children how players in a band should work together,” he said. “By this I don’t just mean conforming with each other on the surface, which Japanese are good at, but putting their artistic emotion freely into their performance as a unit.”

Finally, Ishikawa flagged up some special features of this year’s “Blast!” — such as “more than half the members are new, so they’ve been rehearsing for ages for their debut and their energy will really burst out on stage here.

“Also, as a new item, we will perform a Japanese song, which relates to the disasters that hit the Tohoku region in March 2011. It’s a special surprise present for Japanese fans,” he said, adding: “Though we’ve repeated the program hundreds of times, it could be the first ‘Blast!’ for some in the audience this time — so I want it to be a precious encounter for everyone, and I aim for a home-run performance every time.”

“Blast!” is touring Japan till Sept. 7, including shows at Tokyo International Forum, Hall C, from Aug. 6-24. For details, visit www.blast-tour.jp.