Kagura theater: talking with gods


Every four years on our island, we have a New Year’s kagura performance. You don’t just sit back and watch kagura; you become a part of it whether you intend to or not. All the other events on the island over the past four years seemed like mere practice sessions compared to kagura.

Kagura is a theatrical performance, including music and dancing, that is used as a vehicle of communication between the gods and the people. What exactly we’re communicating to the gods I’m not sure, but the locals seem to be on pretty good terms with them.

Four years of anticipation prematurely climaxed on the morning of the event when, en masse, previously quiet and law-abiding citizens started drinking sake. And after that, anything went. The day started at 8 a.m., when the kagura and his entourage of costumed accomplices arrived by boat. The boat circled around the port several times while the kagura danced on the bow of the boat, his outstretched hands each holding a fan, while tossing his wild long white hair about. He wore a red mask with a long “tengu” nose sticking out. The islanders greeted the kagura and troupe as they got off the boat, and the first sake toasts were made to the Shinto gods.

By 10 a.m., when the performance started, the locals were already drunk. And bawdy. As I approached the performance hall I had to cross through a barrier of locals standing outside with sake bottles in hand, serving up more toasts to the gods to all who passed. I could feel the island wobbling under all the staggering. And it was still early. “Amy,” one man said with a swagger, “do you know who I am?”

“Sure,” I lied.

“My name is Saburo!” he yelled, as if I were perhaps hard of hearing. At this proclamation, other men with whom I’ve shared a beer or two with over the years beckoned to me. “Amy, you were born and raised here on Shiraishi — you are one of us! Come here!” while one of them lifted his sake bottle and poured me a ceremonial cup from it. I accepted my first toast of the day to the gods.

“My name is Saburo!” repeated the old man, approaching me with his own bottle of sake. We have been doing kagura since 1507,” he said. “Except the year after World War II. We didn’t hold kagura, out of shame for having lost the war. But that is the only time it has been canceled,” he said while filling the cup I had just finished. I politely accepted one more toast, then escaped the drunks to go inside and watch the performance.

Inside, the audience sat on reed mats on the floor in front of the stage — everyone looked settled in for the six-hour performance. A bit like watching kabuki, the performers wore masks and elaborate costumes of layered kimonos. The performers were all men (even in women’s roles). The story is based on a famous myth that takes place in Izumo, in what is now Shimane Prefecture. Susano, the hero of the story, comes across an old man and an old woman in Izumo lamenting the death of their seven daughters who were eaten by a dragon. Susano quickly works up a plan to slay the dragon. He has a sword, and also a weapon of mass destruction: sake. Susano plans to get the dragon drunk with sake, then slay him.

To my surprise, the actors anticipated audience participation. The audience shouted out in glee or disdain at the events unfolding, and the actors adjusted their performance accordingly. When the old man in the story, who had been kneeling throughout the act, began to stand up, a man heckled from the audience, “You are an old man — you can’t stand up so quickly!” The actor quickly dropped back to his knees and, re-enacting the scene, slowly and creakily rose to his feet. “That’s better!” yelled the heckler, while the audience laughed along.

It takes six hours to tell this simple story, mainly because it is constantly interrupted by extraneous acts such as a comedy performance or dance. Then every hour or so, Susano appears on stage again, and the story continues. At one of these intervals, I decided to go outside to check on my new friend Saburo. But it turned out I was a little late. Although he greeted me with the same, “Amy! I am Saburo!” his face was a bit scratched up. He had taken a bad fall. The blood was still fresh, but he seemed to have already forgotten about the event. By now he had acquired his own special decanter of sake, which had been specially blessed by the Shinto priest, and he was graciously giving all of it to me, bit by bit, by refilling my little ceremonial cup. I refused several times, but when I realized it was futile, I gave myself over to the gods and accepted more sake. And more. Soon we were laughing together and Saburo was telling me stories about kagura in the old days.

While the dragon was on stage drinking from a large barrel of sake and getting deliriously drunk, Saburo was plying me with more sake in ceremonial cups. I do believe I was finally communicating with the gods. At the end of the six-hour performance, Susano had finally slain the dragon. And me.