Kansai hoping to revitalize with return to cultural roots

by Gary Tegler

KYOTO — The Kansai region is about to host a unique performing arts festival that organizers hope will spark a regional renaissance at a time when the nation is facing a bleak future.

Kazuhiko Kasaya

Gakugeki Festival 2001 will be held in four Kansai cities over an 18-day period this month, featuring bunraku, kabuki and noh plays by some of the nation’s leading artists.

The festival also includes a trip to historical sites connected with traditional theater, a documentary film on kabuki legend Danjuro Kikugoro and a lecture by philosopher Takeshi Umehara.

Contrary to what Tokyoites might think, Kansai is the cradle of Japanese theater.

Noh traces its origins to “sarugaku” performances at Kasuga Taisha Shrine in Nara during the ninth century.

Kabuki began along the banks of Kyoto’s Kamo River in 1603, when troupes of women sang and danced for residents eager for diversion after years of warfare. And bunraku, whose themes are often borrowed from noh, reached its pinnacle in Osaka’s Dotonbori in the Genroku Period (1688-1703).

Taken together, these arts are called “kamigata,” which denotes not only what is now Kansai but also a refined degree of accomplishment.

“It evolved that Tokyo became the major center of Japan while the ground began slipping out from under Kansai,” said Kazuhiko Kasaya, a festival organizer and professor at the International Research Center for Japanese Studies in Kyoto. “By including the word kamigata in promoting this festival, we aim to return to the brilliance and high status that once marked the arts of this region.”

Like Western opera or American musicals, traditional Japanese theater combines music, dance and drama, he noted. This is embodied in the word “gakugeki,” which literally means musical drama. All three arts in the festival share these elements and reached their peak development during the burgeoning prosperity of the Genroku Period.

“The rice market of Dojima (in Osaka) was referred to at the time as the breadbasket of Japan,” Kasaya figured. “It also spawned futures markets that were the beginning of the nation’s current economic system. Essentially, Japan’s first stock market soon followed in 1730.”

Festival director Hayao Kawai, who some call the father of modern psychiatry in Japan, stressed the difference between the concomitant development of arts and economics in the Genroku Period and the 1980s bubble economy. He reckoned the bubble collapsed both because it “arose independently of cultural developments and was an artificial phenomena.”

To ensure this does not recur, the festival particularly aims at introducing traditional arts to young people.

“Cultures must communicate between themselves from their roots, as well as (from) a frame of mind of mutual understanding,” Kawai said. “Therefore, it is very important that young Japanese understand their own traditional arts. There is no other way but through direct experience.”

Festival organizers hope to eventually have wide participation from overseas artists. In this way, Kawai said, new avenues may be opened to explore universal themes.

“One thing that is universal in kabuki, in particular, is its form and beauty,” he noted. “Though it may be difficult for non-Japanese to grasp the concept of ‘giri-ninjo’ (duty and obligation,) which infuses this type of theater, it is on the presentation and form of kabuki that we hope artists and playwrights outside this country will be able to hang their creativity.”

The festival opens Wednesday at Osaka International Convention Center with a presentation on traditional theater by Umehara, followed by a performance of noh singing by Rokuro Umewaka.

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