As world leaders in the performing art of Japanese drumming, Kodo state on their website that their mission is: “To explore the limitless possibilities of the traditional Japanese drum, the taiko (aka wadaiko), and to forge new directions for this vibrant living art form.”
Based on Sado Island, a gem of nature lying 50 km west of Niigata City in the Sea of Japan that’s home to just 63,000 people — but around a third of the nation’s 80-odd noh theaters — Kodo sprang from the island’s fertile culture in 1981.
Since then, the company — whose name means Children of the Drums — has seen its base set amid rice paddies and persimmon groves turn into what’s now known as Kodo Mura (Kodo Village), which has a rehearsal hall, an office building, a 60-bed dormitory for cast and crew, a guest house, recording studio and a taiko presentation center for visitors.
From that vibrant hub, Kodo has reached out to perform all over Japan as well as in 46 other countries to date. The company also plays at numerous events on Sado, and runs hands-on taiko programs for children from around Japan.
But despite its success, and its global brand image, Kodo doesn’t rest on its laurels. Hence in 2003 it asked the famed kabuki onnagata (female-role) actor Bando Tamasaburo V to direct one of its shows — after which, in 2006, he invited them to perform in “Amaterasu,” a musical-dance piece he created.
In April 2012, those happy collaborations led to Tamasaburo being appointed Kodo’s artistic director. The next month, the designated national living treasure oversaw “Densetsu” (“Legends”), followed in December 2013 by “Shinpi” (“Mysteries”).
When I caught up with “Shinpi” in Tokyo, rather than seeing muscular men and women in traditional happi festival costumes energetically beating drums as I’d expected, I beheld some of the cast in stylish and shiny costumes dancing and chanting as well as drumming — while others performed with huge snake puppets akin to those in Chinese lion dances.
Fast forward almost a year, and this September I luckily heard that Kodo and 64-year-old Tamasaburo were working on a new production titled “Eien” (“Eternity”) — so off I headed to Kodo Mura to find out more.
After arriving there and eating Sado’s famed rice for lunch with the 16-strong cast, we all moved across to the rehearsal hall. Before long, Tamasaburo appeared and sat in his director’s chair, carefully observing as the drummers played and moved around. Soon, though, he was up on his feet the first of many times, boldly suggesting new choreography — and even asking for changes in the drumming.
Each time, after gathering round him to discuss his ideas, the cast would try time and again to put them into practice until Tamasaburo finally declared: “Hai! Kirei!” (“Yes! Beautiful!”).
Altogether, it was wonderful to watch art being fashioned before your eyes from such an intimate, though superficially unlikely, collaboration between Kodo’s world-class drummers and that master of the aesthetics of live performance.
“Tamasaburo entrusts us with so much of his wisdom,” 28-year-old Tsuyoshi Maeda, one of Kodo’s top drummers, told me afterward. “Although he listens intently to our opinions on the musical elements, he draws intuitively on his rich experience as an actor to closely direct the overall performance.”
Sitting beside Maeda, another of the troupe’s top drummers, 35-year-old Mitsuru Ishizuka, added, “It seems like he gives us musical advice from his pure artistic inspiration despite him not being a musician. So I’ve realized that everything related to theater — whether acting, music, visual effects or dancing — has deeply permeated into his blood. I think he is the ultimate performing-arts figure.”
As for the new production, “Eien” (“Eternity”), which opens this month in Sado then tours nationwide, Ishizuka said, “This is the first time we have created a piece from nothing. We used to incorporate earlier numbers, or variations on them, but here everything’s from scratch.
“In practice this means that each member, of course including Tamasaburo, brings new ideas to the group every day and we develop them by trial-and-error, sometimes using non-percussion instruments, to create our new work step-by-step together.”
Both Ishizuka and Maeda started taiko drumming when they were small.
Laughing as he explained the attraction he felt then, Ishizuka, a native of Saitama Prefecture, said, “To be frank, the biggest charm of wadaiko is that it’s not necessary to study complicated theory to play. If you just beat a drum, it comes out as some kind of music.
“Also, players can feel the sound physically through vibrations — through their bodies, not with their brains. That is a great experience, and I love it — so that’s why I chose this occupation.”
For Maeda, however, one event set him on course for his career as a drummer.
“When the Great Hanshin Earthquake happened in 1995 (killing almost 6,500 in southern Hyogo Prefecture), I was 8 and living in that area, and I visited some of the survivors’ camps as a taiko-troupe volunteer.
“At first many people showed displeasure toward us as they were feeling so low, but after our performance they’d thank us with tears in their eyes.
“The taiko sound is an entirely different experience from music on TV, for example, and I realized then how deeply and directly it could touch people. So it felt great being able to communicate through taiko — though I never imagined I could make a living this way.”
Nowadays, Maeda is composing as well as performing, and while I was there the ensemble were practicing one of his numbers. Sometimes, when they’d form a circle to swap ideas, Tamasaburo joined in and hummed rhythms as they were all suggesting various arrangements. As a creative process, it was like a free-jazz session.
“I think Tamasaburo can see far ahead toward a complete staging image,” Maeda said. “I am sometimes confused by his surprising directorial ideas, but they come from his enor- mously rich theater experience and it’s astonishing to see how they turn out.”
Echoing his colleague, Ishizuka said, “Tamasaburo brought a new way of thinking to us. Kodo used to be all about traditional Japanese taiko and folk art, and we were reluctant to accept Western rhythms or dance.
“But he was fearless in introducing new things we’d never done before — so now we are ready to try anything he suggests.
“In the end, though, I’d like to think that both traditional and innovative styles will be strong points of Kodo going forward — and I hope this helps us appeal more to younger people who normally only listen to J-pop.”
Reinforcing that point, Maeda recalled, “When I went to Ireland, I saw all generations enjoying Irish folk songs at pubs and singing and dancing together. That’s so cool — and to realize that with Kodo, I want to make new works that young people will think are so cool, too.”
Meanwhile, in a recent interview on Kodo’s website, Tamasaburo commented on the new work, saying, “With ‘Eternity,’ I have aimed to create a new Kodo sound nobody has heard before. We are playing music, so the performance should not be left completely to drummers, and it should be up to the composer and conductor as well.
“I have thought a lot about the meaning of the word ‘eternity,’ and I hope audiences think about it, too. After all, there isn’t eternity on the stage.”
Perhaps not, but there’s ample evidence of the limitless possibilities of the traditional Japanese drum.
“Kodo One Earth Tour: ‘Eien’ (‘Eternity’)” premieres Nov. 20 at Amusement Sado in Sado. It then tours nine other venues till Dec. 25, including Dec. 6-7 at NHK Osaka Hall in Osaka and Dec. 19-23 at Bunkyo Civic Hall in Tokyo. For details, call 0259-86-3630 or visit www.kodo.or.jp.