When I mention that I do research on Japanese acrobats, people’s first reaction is surprise, because, at first view, there is no sign anymore of this tradition in Japan, in contrast for instance to Chinese circus. Then, my Japanese interlocutors don’t fail mentioning Dezomeshiki, the New Year parade when firemen display their skills, and do some acrobatics on bamboo ladders. Their performance is always featured in newspapers in the beginning of January (see my post below for some images)
There is in Japan another less known event featuring acrobatic performances, the Takengei festival in Nagasaki, in October. Here is what you can read about it on Wikipedia:
Takengei (竹ン芸) is a Japanese autumn festival. It is organized in the Wakamiya-Inari–Jinja shrine in Nagasaki City. Since 2003, it is officially registered as part of Japan’s Folk Intangible Patrimony.
Takengei is an annual two-day event organized on October 14 and 15. Two 10 meters high bamboo poles are erected inside the sanctuary; they are called “male bamboo” (男竹) and “female bamboo” (女竹). Accompanied by traditional drums, flutes and shamisen, two people in white garb and with a fox mask climb up the poles and declare to each other their love at the top of the bamboos. They also accomplish some kind of acrobatic performance.
At the end, the fox at the top of the male bamboo throws around some small rice cakes (mochi), pulls out of a pocket in his garb a chicken and lets it fly to the ground. Eventually both foxes go down the poles with a spectacular slide.
The festival has been organized in Wakamiya-Inari-Jinja since 1896; earlier, another shrine in Nagasaki City used to host the festival.
- (Japanese) The Agency for Cultural Affairs, Cultural Heritage Online: 竹ン芸 たけんげい (no date).
For some videos, please see below the French version for this blog entry.
Watching the videos, we understand better old French newspaper articles, and we clearly see how spectacular and dangerous acrobatics performances could be. The videos and the history of the festival also allow to raise the question of the transformation Japanese performances had to go through to be appreciated in Europe and America. Does the Takengei festival offer a “pure” unadulterated version of the spectacle offered by Japanese acrobats around 1867, before orientalism and japonisme influence ? I also find remarkable the light and dramatic plays made possible by the white garb of the acrobats during the night festival. They probably contrast with the exotic and colorful cloth that were an often appreciated feature of Japanese acrobats in France.
(I had no qualm to quote in extenso the Wikipedia entry because I wrote most of it. As a professor of French in Japan, I designed some exercises using this electronic free encyclopedia, an under-appreciated and often maligned tool for educators.)
(I am happy to mention the comics blog Vee’s Dumping Ground by Violaine Briat. It is thanks to her drawings that I discovered the festival. Serendipity can help scholars to go out of Google’s tracks.)
(See B. E. Thornbury, The Cultural Properties Protection Law and Japan’s Folk Performing Arts, Asian Folklore Studies 53, 1994, p. 211-225 for some background on Japan’s Folk Intangible Patrimony)