Kodo: a journey into mystery
Arts + Culture Preview
When the members of Kodo venture out from their home base on Japan’s Sado Island they embark on a simple mission that began in 1981 – to bring the traditional Japanese performing arts, and in particular the thunderous sound of the taiko, to every corner of the globe.
From the moment they played their debut concert at Germany’s Berliner Philharmonie they became a cultural phenomenon, bringing audiences to their feet with a stage show that transcends language and race, speaking to the core of the human experience.
Over the years the group has stayed true to its roots, adhering to a mantra articulated by the group’s original artistic director, Toshio Kawauchi: “Living, Learning and Creating.” As he wrote in 1985, “Originally mankind was part of nature, breathed with nature, lived together with her. Since we settled on Sado Island, nature’s voices – the songs of birds and insects in the fields, the whisper of the trees in the wind, the sound of the waves breaking on the rocks – have seeped inside us, unseen. They have become the starting point for our creativity. We remain with Sado as the base for our lives because there is space for both nature and us to live together. As our roots penetrated deeper into this soil, the plan for Kodo Village came about as a place where we might think and act on a global level.”
While the group maintains a rigorous schedule, spending a third of the year performing overseas and another third touring throughout Japan, they always return to Kodo Village, their artistic and spiritual home. It is here that they train new members, work on their drumming skills and develop new material.
With a stage show and artistic approach that has remained remarkably consistent over the the past 30 years, Kodo felt the need for a radical new approach and in 2012 a new artistic director was brought on board.
Tamasaburo Bando brings with him an impressive resume. A well-known kabuki actor, he is the most popular and celebrated onnagata (actor specializing in female roles) on stage today. Having collaborated with the group over the years, he brings with him a fresh approach while adhering to the group’s essence.
Their new show, Mystery – their second under Bando’s direction – sees Kodo exploring new avenues of expression, integrating more women into their works and expanding the theatrical components in surprising and wonderful ways, with mythical creatures sharing the stage with the huge drums that are at the centre of the Kodo universe.
Talking about Mystery, Bando comments, “Across Japan, the folk arts have been handed down for countless generations. There’s a sacredness there, an air of mystery within each prayer. The drums express this, and I would like for the audience to feel it, too. I hope theatergoers will experience the same sort of otherworldly splendor that they sense in temples, shrines, and moments of discovery in the forest.”
Vancouver audiences have the opportunity to immerse themselves in Kodo’s Mystery on January 29 – sure to be an early highlights of the 2015 season!
KODO One Earth Tour: Mystery
Thursday, January 29, 8pm
Queen Elizabeth Theatre
Tickets $69 / $59 / $49 through NorthernTickets.com
604.569.1144 or 1.855.551.9747, 918 Granville Street
INFO: www.kodo.or.jp / 604.683.8240
Curious about Kodo’s new direction and show, The Bulletin spoke to two of Kodo’s newer members.
Born 1991, Kagawa, Japan
Yuta Sumiyoshi started playing taiko in his second year of elementary school. During his high school years, he performed in an acoustic duo he formed with a friend. He entered the Kodo Apprentice Centre in 2010 and became a Kodo member in 2013. On stage, he is featured mainly on taiko drums and bamboo flutes. He made his Kodo stage debut in the nationwide “Kodo One Earth Tour 2012: Legend” performances, and despite being a newcomer he was selected for soloist positions including the coveted role of O-daiko. His talents span a wide range of fields with Kodo, including composing pieces featured on the Kodo stage such as Yui, Kusa-wake and Kei Kei.
I have seen Kodo many times over the years, even visiting them in their home on Sado many years ago, yet this new show seems to be a real departure. Can you desribe the process of creating Mystery?
We started off by taking apart our production style and any fixed idea we had. We were constantly challenged to express ourselves as a single taiko performer and a Kodo member, without the usual happi coats and hachimaki head bands. In addition to the beauty that is being portrayed for each individual when we play taiko to the fullest, we are asked to work through the beauty of performing arts as well.
I believe one of Tamasaburo Bando’s vision for Kodo is to broaden theatrical expression by learning how to express delicate musicality instead of just hitting the drums with all our might.
Previously, Kodo focussed primarily on taiko and other folk instruments, but the new show, Mystery, appears to be a lot more theatrical in nature – how would you describe it to audiences who seeing it for the first time?
In the broad theme of Mystery we focus on the beauty of darkness for this production. The starry night sky and the moonlight is a part of the beautiful mother nature, and I believe the man-made lighting can give the same image. A lamp itself may not seem beautiful in front of you, but when many of them flicker far insight of darkness, you will probably agree to its charm. In this kind of light and darkness that we create, Kodo performing members appear on stage one by one to face our spirits into the drums we play. It’s like a book of short stories, where scenes are flipped through to lead up to a climax. I would say that this production is a new style of performing arts where the stage lighting gives a visual essence to a theatrical piece.
How has this new direction and show been received?
First timers would say, “This is a refined, comfortable production.” Our fans that have followed Kodo for years would often tell us, “Kodo has changed.”
However, I believe that Kodo has no intentions on making a negative change on our performance. We do intend on changing, as in developing, as a group. We continue to build our technique and spirituality that has been fostered for over 30 years of history. We did not abandon our performance style that we had always had, but are constantly challenging ourselves to try something new on stage.
This will eventually help us connect to a broader range of performance expression.
We aim for a group that can manage both production styles; the former style where we play taiko with all our might, and the newer style that Tamasaburo Bando has directed us to, containing many expressive stage presence.
Kodo has always been an inspiration to taiko groups in North America who have long admired their precision and discipline. Has the group maintained its ties with groups here?
As a performing member of Kodo, we go through two years of apprenticeship that includes selective processes in between the years. During this apprenticeship, we connect with taiko players from abroad through a program called KASA-MIX.
The friends we met through this program will always have a special relationship with us, and we get the chance to reconnect whenever we are on an international tour.
We also have a very long friendship with North American taiko groups such as San Jose Taiko (SJ), Kinnara Taiko (LA), and Soh Daiko (NY).
Who composes and choreographs the new pieces that the group is playing?
It is not unusual for Tamasaburo Bando to choreograph pieces as he, himself, is a performing artist. However, he is not a taiko player, so in terms of composition, we give out ideas for taiko rhythms and flute melody, as Tamasaburo Bando puts them together. Our production, Mystery, was one of the productions that were made through this process.
Is there anything you would like to add?
Our production, Mystery, that we are bringing to North American this time, is an innovative production that you have never seen before. With the basic image that Kodo has created through the years, we have challenged ourselves to incorporate new and different possibilities that a taiko drum can make. Please come and enjoy the world of Mystery with our new energy that we put into this production
Born 1986, Aichi, Japan
Eri Uchida entered the Kodo Apprentice Centre in 2007 and became a Kodo member in 2010. On stage, she is featured mainly on taiko drums and in dance pieces. In 2010, despite being a new member, she was selected to perform in the ballet production Kaguyahime at the Paris Opera, where she experienced being in the international limelight early on in her career. She has a strong mind that has helped earn her the trust of her seniors in the ensemble. With her tall, slim physique and unisex air, she is a prominent female performer who attracts a great deal of attention. In recent years she has emerged as a central performer who continues to grow in leaps and bounds in an array of productions including “School Workshop Performances” and collaborations abroad.
What is the difference between your past productions and the current production for 2015, Mystery?
This production is like one tale: it is all connected from the moment the curtain rises until it comes down at the end. In our productions to date, many elements were left up to each individual performer to decide. But in this production, everything has been decided for us in detail. As we begin to internalize the (director’s) sensibilities one by one, we were able to see a world unfold before us, unlike any we had seen before.
Until now, Kodo created productions from a taiko player’s point of view, but Tamasaburo Bando’s entire production is developed from an audience’s point of view, which I think allows an even wider audience to enjoy our performances.
What is your background before you entered the Kodo apprentice programme?
I started playing taiko in a local taiko group in Japan when I was sixteen, and then I moved to Canada to study abroad at a public high school. I lived in a town called Kelowna, which did not have a taiko group. So, I started up a group called “Yamabiko” (mountain echo) with some locals who were interested in taiko. As I taught taiko to my group, I began to realize how little knowledge I had about my home country, Japan. Just as I was thinking that I wanted to study more about Japan, I went to see a Kodo performance in Vancouver and I heard about the Kodo Apprentice Centre.
After I graduated from high school, I went back to Japan and worked part-time while I went to see many taiko groups around Japan. I decided that Kodo’s Apprentice Centre really was the best place to study: a great environment to learn many things about Japan.
What are your thoughts on re-visiting Vancouver as a performing member of Kodo?
While I was living in Canada, I felt that people had a lot of interest in Japan and taiko, but they did not get that many chances to be exposed to authentic Japanese culture.
I always wanted to create that opportunity, and at first I thought about going to Canada and teaching, but I decided it would be more influential to go back there as a performing member of Kodo.
With that said, it is kind of like a dream come true to revisit Canada as what I believe to be “an authentic” Japanese performer.
I have attended a few workshops in Vancouver as well as interacting with taiko groups in the Vancouver community. I am very excited to reunite with many of my friends from Kelowna and Vancouver on this upcoming tour and for them to see me on stage as a performing member of Kodo.
Will you have friends and colleagues coming to see you in Vancouver?
The taiko group I started over 10 years ago, Yamabiko, is still going strong. I am looking forward to being reunited with them, as well as the local Vancouver taiko groups, and the people that supported me during my high-school years in Canada.