Some of Japan’s top athletes are using their talents to carve out new careers in the theater spotlight — and they have created one of the nation’s most successful entertainment exports along the way
Forty sweating bodies lined across the stage move in unison, hands slapping legs with open palms. A surprisingly loud crack echoes through the quiet of the theater. Then another and another as the performers quickly build up a complex rhythm, varying the pitch of the sound hitting other parts of their bodies such as their biceps, forearms and chests.
To see and hear human bodies turned into living musical instruments has a sheer originality about it that is breathtaking.
This is body-slapping — the signature routine of “Muscle Musical,” a Cirque du Soleil-esque revue of acrobatic performances by former Japanese athletes, including an ex-Olympian and two world champions.
With draw cards like Miho Takeda, a silver medalist at the 2000 and 2004 Olympics in synchronized swimming, the group is immensely popular and last month moved from its home base in Yokohama to a specially built theater in Shibuya with a new show, titled “Jungle,” which has been extended by popular demand until June 17.
The performances contain no spoken dialogue, and removing the language barrier has paved the way for “Muscle Musical” to sign a two-year contract to perform a show in Las Vegas from May 29 — the first Japanese show to run on a long-term basis overseas, according to “Muscle Musical” officials.
First performed in 2001, “Muscle Musical” is a spinoff of the popular television program “Kinniku Banzuke,” or “Muscle Ranking” — in which athletes compete to determine who has the best physical abilities. A similar show is aired several times a year on Tokyo Broadcasting System, under the title “Muscular Athlete Championship.”
It was at a brainstorming meeting for “Muscle Ranking” that Ushio Higuchi, the then producer of the show, came up with the idea of creating a beat by slapping parts of the body.
“It was supposed to be a one-time show on TV,” said Higuchi, now president of Digital Nine Co., the company behind “Muscle Musical.” “But it came out as such a big hit that we decided to do a full-scale production.”
Since then, “Muscle Musical” has attracted about 800,000 people to more than 800 performances. The company plans to stage more than 300 performances a year in the new 830-seat Shibuya theater.
Like the TV series it is based upon, “Muscle Musical” tests the limits of athletic ability. At a late April media preview, performer Tomoyuki, who goes by his first name only, leaped over a 2.66-meter vaulting box dubbed “Monster Box.” He has cleared 3.06 meters — a world record — in past shows.
Every element of the show involves grueling physical activity. Even body-slapping, explained performer Ryoko Miyashita, exacts a physical cost. The first step to learning it, she said, is to find out which part of one’s legs and arms produces the biggest sound, and then practice slapping the same body part over and over again.
Each performer has his or her preferred way of getting out a good, heavy slapping sound, said Miyashita.
“That’s why all of us get bruises on our legs at first,” she said with a chuckle.
Hiromitsu Takahashi, leader of the “Muscle Musical” performers, sheds 3 kg over the course of just one show.
“We test our physical limits every time we perform,” Takahashi, 41, said. “We want the audience to feel the energy bursting out of us.”
But it was not easy to teach athletes, who have only performed in competitions, to become entertainers.
“Because they are athletes, they tend to be harsh on themselves when their performances fail,” said Higuchi. “But I tell them that this is not a competition and that they need to make it look like they haven’t failed, even if they do.”
Takeda’s big number, titled “Sea Angel,” which is performed with two other swimmers in a massive acrylic tank perched on one corner of the stage, is one of the revue’s most popular routines.
Takeda admits, however, that she could not tell how well she was performing at first because the experience was entirely different from what she was accustomed to in the sport she had been devoted to since age 13.
“In synchronized swimming, speed and acting in unison is what we get high scores for,” Takeda said. “But in ‘Muscle Musical,’ all the moves are performed underwater, so I can’t do speedy moves.”
After talking with staff, she realized the important thing was to make it look beautiful and entertaining for the audience.
“So I began to place more importance on the flow of the music instead of how precisely I act,” said Takeda, who designs the underwater performance.
The real challenge for her is when she gets out of the water and joins other performers in group dancing.
“It’s difficult because I have concentrated only on synchronized swimming since I was in junior high,” she sighed. “But I can’t use that as an excuse.”
Mountain biker Daisuke Morikami, who placed ninth at the 2006 World Championships staged in Gifu Prefecture, said he “trembled with nervousness” when he debuted in front of an 800-strong audience this April. But Morikami, 22, was quickly intoxicated by the audience’s applause.
“Mountain bike competitions are normally held somewhere far from urban areas where a few dozen people come to watch,” Morikami said. “But in the show, hundreds of people come to see us . . . I get more motivated if there are many people watching.”
“Muscle Musical” not only shines a welcome spotlight on such minor sports, but also provides a new avenue for athletes to make a living from a sport in which they have invested so much effort.
One such athlete is Yasuaki Yoshikawa, a bronze medalist at the 2003 World Championships in wheel gymnastics.
Wheel gymnastics, or rhonrad, is popular in Germany but virtually unheard of in Japan. A wheel gymnast performs various feats in a wheel of about two meters in diameter.
Yoshikawa, 28, began wheel gymnastics while studying at Ryukyu University in Okinawa Prefecture. Not wanting to quit the sport after graduation, he trained for the World Championships while working as a teacher at a cram school in his home prefecture of Nara and taught the sport to local residents in his spare time.
That was when he was recruited by one of the show’s staff.
“I don’t know any wheel gymnast in Japan who makes a living out of this sport except for me,” said Yoshikawa. “I hope more people will follow suit.”
Yoshikawa’s hope is already materializing. Recently, a second wheel gymnast, Hideaki Yamashiro, joined the company. The pair perform in fluorescent orange costumes on a stage bathed in black light, making it look as though they are walking in space.
“Muscle Musical” appears to have built up an unstoppable momentum. A second troupe will begin a tour of Japan in July, and a third troupe will launch a show titled “Matsuri” from May 29 in Las Vegas’ Sahara Hotel & Casino. Built in 1952, the casino is well-known for having hosted concerts by the Beatles, Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin.
“Muscle Musical” first performed in Las Vegas for two months in 2005, paving the way for its current long-term contract in one of the world’s biggest show biz cities.
Among the 28 performers in the Las Vegas show are Naoki Iketani, a former gymnast and a regular on the TV show “Muscular Athlete Championship,” and Keigoh Arizono, a 1994 world champion mountain bike rider.
Director and choreographer Ryoji Nakamura is enthusiastic, saying it is a great opportunity to show that Japan has created an entertainment revue that is uniquely its own.
“In Japan, musicals are mostly imported from Western countries, but now we are exporting a made-in-Japan musical,” said Nakamura, a founder of “Muscle Musical” who has directed more than 250 musicals, operas, plays and concerts. His latest work includes the stage show “Out of Order,” which was performed in Tokyo and Osaka in March.
Nakamura explained that his inspiration for the show was silent film-era comedian Charlie Chaplin.
“When a Japanese person performs a show abroad, there will always be a language barrier,” he said. “So I had always wanted to create a show with no lines.”
Ambitions for “Muscle Musical” do not stop there. Higuchi said he is in talks for a possible tour in Asia, including South Korea, China, Hong Kong and Taiwan.
And some day he hopes to put his show on Broadway — the mecca for musicals and entertainment shows.
“New York has given the cold shoulder to revue-style entertainment but that has changed,” he said. “Some day, we could do a show there.”
About 40 performers complete various acrobatics while jumping over a vaulting box. In one routine, a performer does a handstand on the tips of two poles placed on the box. He then completes a one-handed handstand on one pole.
Another performance sees an athlete vault onto the box in a handstand position and then inch forward to the edge of the box. Three other athletes follow suit, and all four of them balance upside down atop the box. In another, a performer stands on the box, spins a hoop using her leg and kicks the hoop up and into the hands of another performer.
In the most breathtaking performance, a performer lies on the box with his arms above him. Another performer does a handstand on the first performer’s palms and the third one dives through the arms of the two performers.
Fifteen performers standing on wooden boxes of different sizes beat imaginary taiko drums. The drumming sound is created as they stamp their feet on the hollow boxes beneath them.
Big banners bearing the words “thunder” and “wind” in kanji hang behind them. Taiko was used to raise the morale of soldiers going to war during the Sengoku Era (1477-1573), and the performance, including the occasional spirited shout by one of the participants, is reminiscent of the image of soldiers going into battle.
Each performer stamps out a separate rhythm, and the tempo steadily quickens, creating a mesmerizing combination of beats that fills the theater with a powerful din.
Based on Chinese bungee jumping, a popular acrobatic routine in China, performers leap off a 4.9-meter-high bar to which they are connected by bungee cords — only they spin around the bar instead of bobbing up and down.
When the clock strikes “one,” a performer swings around the bar. But as the clock strikes “two” and “three,” the number of performers circling the bar increases.
The climax is when the clock strikes “five.” All five performers swing at once, looking like a small Ferris wheel rotating at frantic speed.
According to “Muscle Musical,” even experienced bungee jumpers in China will not perform more than four at a time.
The performance used to end at “three o’clock,” or three bungee jumpers. But at the end of last year, they began performing “five o’clock.”
Mountain biker Daisuke Morikami launches his bike off a 4-meter-high platform onto a mattress, then goes airborne off the stage and races through the audience, before bunny-hopping up the stairs and onto the stage again.
He then spins around and steadies himself for his finale. Morikami hurtles up a ramp at full speed and lands on a 2 1/2-meter platform. But the tricky part is not over. Lifting the bike up on its back wheel once more, he hops it onto a small, round platform about a meter away and then onto two others placed at different heights, successfully ending his performance with a big smile.
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