Despite Tokyo’s record-breaking summer heat, half a million spectators packed downtown Asakusa on Aug. 28 to watch the 30th Asakusa Samba Carnival, with many having arrived in the morning to be sure of getting a good view.

At one of the prime spots along the carnival’s 800-meter parade route — around the crossing of Kaminarimon and Umamichi streets — Mariko Inuzuka, a 60-year-old housewife from Yokohama, said that since she started to do ballroom dancing some years ago, she has also been drawn to Latin American music and dance, including samba.

“I came here because I wanted to feel the genuine samba rhythm,” she said.

The annual event was launched in 1981 by an association of stores in Asakusa to revitalize the area, according to Emi Ishizuka, a secretariat member of the Asakusa Samba Carnival Planning Committee.

“Asakusa used to be the center of entertainment in Japan, and the country’s first movie theater opened here (in 1903),” Ishizuka said. “But as television took hold in the 1960s and ’70s, the number of people coming here to watch films declined.”

Around that time, however, comedy actor Junzaburo Ban (1908-81) told Eiichi Uchiyama, then mayor of Taito Ward, in which Asakusa is located, that the excitement of Asakusa’s traditional Sanja Matsuri festival and the Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro had a lot in common. Consequently, he suggested that the mayor should launch a carnival in Asakusa to revitalize the town.

Uchiyama agreed — and even went to Rio with some local volunteers to do research before the first Asakusa Samba Carnival took to the streets in 1981.

Minoru Morohashi, one of the founders of an Asakusa-based samba team named G.R.E.S. Nakamise Barbaros, said that he and his friends who had previously joined the traditional Sanja Matsuri formed Barbaros in 1980 despite having next to no knowledge of the Brazilian art form.

“That was before Japanese-Brazilians came to Japan to work, so we couldn’t find anyone from whom we could learn the Brazilian music,” Morohashi said. “We couldn’t even obtain Brazilian musical instruments. So we beat buckets and tin ash trays in the first carnival.”

In the 29 years since then, though, the level of samba in Japan has skyrocketed, Morohashi said.

From its first year, the Asakusa Samba Carnival — like Rio’s Carnaval — adopted a contest style, and this year saw 16 teams competing in two leagues, named S1 and S2 — vying not only for prestige, but in some cases cash prizes, too. Overall 4,500 people danced, sang and played music.

In the carnival, samba teams select their own themes and musical accompaniment, choreography, costumes and floats. The teams feature group dancers and musicians as well as solo dancers called passista who wear vividly colored bikinis with feathers on their backs. Each team also has a couple of dancers in standout gorgeous costumes — their male mestre-sala (master of ceremonies) who escorts the lead female porta-bandeira (flag-bearer) dancer.

Although the musical and dance performances by some of the S2 contestants occasionally tended to the enthusiastic amateur level, there was no doubting the caliber of the S1 teams’ spectacularly entertaining shows.

One of those, a Yokohama-based team named G.R.E.S. Saude which ranked fourth last year, surprised many with its bold parade theme of Amor (Love). Explaining that display, Ryutaro Arai and Ren Takahashi — the team’s carnavalesco (carnival directors) — said they chose love as their theme because Saude is a community based on love.

So, when the team’s dancers joined the parade clad in Cupid costumes, they were singing a song written by the two directors that went: “Porque meu coracao bate mais rapido? / Porque todo se ve tao lindo? / O que me faz sofrer / A maravilha do amor” (“Why does my heart beat so fast? / Why does everything look so beautiful? / What makes me suffer / Is the wonder of love”).

They were followed by a troupe dancing to the theme of “Boy Meets Girl” as the men handed roses to the women and asked them for a date. After them came a group of postmen carrying love letters who showed off their marvelous samba steps.

Then came dancers dressed as brides and grooms — with others portraying the post-nuptials as the women performed alluringly in sexy negligees. Yet perhaps even more surprising for the spectators were the male dancers who followed, carrying swinging beds in which lay mannequin women covered by sheets.

Then in consequence, so it seemed, came a huge baby doll on a float to round off the parade by Saude, whose show — the 13th, just three more teams to follow — clearly seemed the most outstanding so far. But the remaining three teams were reputedly the best.

One of those, G.R.E.S. Liberdade based in Tokyo’s Kita Ward, chose the theme “Batida do Coracao” (“Beat of the Heart”) — which one of its singers, Yumiko Fujioka, said aimed to express the excitement of the team members who won the runners-up title in the 2009 carnival.

“Last year we were a close second. So we aim to be top this year,” Fujioka said.

And indeed theirs was an overwhelming performance, brilliantly executed as dancers in red costumes expressed the lively movements of the heart before their float appeared bearing a huge beating heart and followed by “artery” and “vein” dancers wearing red and blue costumes respectively.

As stunning as Liberdade’s show was, though, many spectators were still keyed up waiting to see if Barbaros could defend the title it won last year — the team’s 18th victory in the carnival, which is the most of any competitor.

There were 350 performers in Barbaros’s parade, titled “Doze Signos” (“Twelve Signs of the Zodiac”), and after the leading dancers in gold or silver costumes had passed by throwing ribbons representing shooting stars into the air, along came their float bearing a huge disc inscribed with the 12 zodiac signs. While the disc was surely spectacular, the dancers’ stunning, gorgeous costumes truly rose to the lofty heights of Rio’s Carnaval.

Later, Kiyohisa Hoshino, president of Barbaros, said that the total cost for the team’s parade, including floats, costumes from Brazil and sound systems, was ¥10 million — and though they won ¥2 million when they took top place last year, the rest had had to come from the team’s own pockets and fees from some festival performances around Japan.

But the highlight of the team’s parade was the music played by a band called bateria, whose instruments — conducted by its leader with whistles and wild gestures — included big bass drums called surdo that drove the low and powerful beat, and snare drums called caixa that produced higher sounds.

When the sweating Barbaros performers finally reached the parade’s end at Kaminarimon Street at 6 p.m. the carnival was over and all that remained was to hear the keenly awaited verdict of the 11 judges.

So it was that, after the heat of the samba battle, Saude was awarded its first top spot ever, with Barbaros a close second. They were followed by G.R.E.S. Uniao dos Amadores, a team of university students in Tokyo, and Liberdade in fourth place.

Later, one of the judges, a samba musician named Den, said that Saude had been outstanding by doing it their way.

“Most samba teams here have imitated the themes of teams at the Rio Carnaval,” Den said. “But Saude’s members showed their true originality in their artistic expression, and that was quite a breakthrough in the carnival here.”

Sounds great — but how did the Asakusa Samba Carnival look through Brazilian eyes? Jair Martins de Miranda, an assistant professor at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro State, said that although samba carnivals are held in several cities outside Brazil, Asakusa’s is the biggest and best carnival in terms of capturing the Brazilian spirit.

“I find this carnival incredible and amazing, taking into account that it happens on the other side of the planet in a country which is so different culturally, socially and economically from Brazil,” said Miranda, who researches samba carnivals across the globe.

As to why samba became popular on these shores, Miranda said that carnival is not just about dance, music and visuals — but also something that takes people out of their everyday lives.

It’s an explanation perhaps best expressed in the love song by Saude, which goes: “Meu samba / Voce me faz abrir os olhos / Me ensina o tesouro de amor e a fragilidade da vida / Sem o samba, nao existe a vida (My samba / You let me open my eyes / You taught me the treasure of love and the fragility of life / Without samba, life doesn’t exist).”

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