Instead of a video post, I will be writing about one exceptional movie that was highly important for the emergence of Taiko as a modern performance art today. It had a lasting effect on Tajiri Kōzō (better known as Den Tagayasu) and was one his main motivations to found the taiko performance group Ondekoza, which is widely credited as “one of the groups to have set the groundwork for taiko as a performance art”, as they describe themselves on their homepage. The name of this special movie is “Muhōmatsu no Isshō 無法松の一生” (“The Life of Matsu the Lawless”). It features star actor Toshirō Mifune taking on the role of a poor rickshaw driver who finds himself taking care of a young woman and her difficult son after the woman’s husband dies rather suddenly. The story is thus summarized in the New York Times Movie database:
“Tough and ready Matsu, the rickshaw man, goes in for anything rough and tumble. His life changes, however, when he crosses paths with Toshio, a young boy who has injured himself. As thanks for helping the boy to the doctor, Toshio’s parents, the Yoshiokas, invite Mitsu to dinner and he gladly accepts their offer. They become close and when Mr. Yoshioka dies from an illness, the family asks Matsu to serve as the young boy’s tutor. Matsu does an exemplary job readying Toshio for school, instilling in him the honesty and honor which are so much a part of his own character. After Toshio leaves for school, Matsu evidences an interest in Mrs. Yoshioka, but their difference in station keeps him from expressing his desire. Matsu’s repressed attraction for the lovely widow grows, driving him to his death at the film’s climactic end. The Rickshaw Man is a sentimental favorite of Japanese cinema.” (NYT Movies)
The movie itself is actually a remake of a black-and-white movie by the same title that was first released in 1943. The version shown in the trailer was released in Japan and Italy in 1958, earning the Golden Lion award at the Venice Film Festival that same year. It was later released under the title “The Rickshaw Man” in 1960 in the US, and remade twice again in 1963 and 1965 by two different Japanese directors, which just goes to show how popular the general theme of the movie was.
This is the trailer with which the movie was advertised:
In his 2012 book “Taiko Boom“, Shawn Bender describes the movie as
“[…] at once a tale of unrequited love, a portrait of the class society of early modern Japan, and a critique of Japan’s rush toward modernization.” (p. 79)
“The film is melodramatic and, in the end, tragic, but this alone is not why it held such interest for Den and other taiko enthusiasts. Much of the film’s appeal has to do with a scene in which Muhōmatsu demonstrates the playing techniques of Kokura gion daiko, a type of drumming performed annually at the Kokura Gion Festival, for one of Toshio’s teachers.” (p. 80)
The movie had a profound impact on Tajiri Kōzō, not only because of the taiko performance, but also because of the movie’s message about class relations and the transition of Japan from a premodern society to an industrialized nation state. The interesting thing about this is that the movie did not actually depict a real folk performance, it was rather a “fictional presentation of festival drumming” (Bender, Ondekoza’s “Ōdaiko”, 2010, p. 864).
Nonetheless, it motivated Den to seek out the “real” Japan, and it inspired him to travel the rural areas in order to find places where the folkloric practices he was looking for were still alive. In his search, he traveled through the southern parts of Japan to Kyūshū and eventually arrived at one of the southernmost points of Japan, a small Okinawan island by the name of Yonaguni-jima. It was there that he first encountered the
“[…] potential of folk performing arts to impress and, in his view, the pitiful state of their decline. One night during his stay, Den was captivated by the taiko performance of an older villager “who brought a drum to the beach in the evening and played it until the sun came up ” (Shinoda 1994, 32).” (Bender, Ondekoza’s “Ōdaiko”, 2010, p. 848)
This was probably his first actual encounter with taiko as a folkloric performance art. At a later point, he changed his name from Tajiri Kōzō 田尻耕三 to Den Tagayasu 田耕, which, according to Bender, indicates a major change in self-identity:
“To create the two-character name of Den Tagayasu, Den combined the first Chinese character of his last name, which means “rice field” (田), and the first Chinese character of his first name, which means “to cultivate” (耕), to create a new personal name that reads as an activity: Den Tagayasu – “the one who cultivates rice” (田耕). This nominal reinvention expreses not only Den’s enchantment with Japan’s rice-growing peasantry, but alsogestures toward the contribution that folkloric imagery would make in the formation of Ondekoza and the creation of Ōdaiko.” (Bender, Ondekoza’s “Ōdaiko”, 2010, p. 849)
In the summer of 1970, Den would create the Ondekoza Summer School (Ondekoza Kai Gakkō) on Sado Island. He brought together a number of intellectuals and artists and about fifty university students for a workshop. Once the workshop was over, he tried to convince the young attendants to stay with him on the island in order to create a performance group, enticing them with dreams of “traveling the world” and creating an own “artisan’s university”. Six people stayed with him to live communally and
“[…] create a kind of social and cultural utopia around the drum and drum playing, a utopia based on traditional values and on the nature of large drums – but musically not actually based on any specific folk music tradition. Ondekoza represented an alternative lifestyle in a rural setting far from the rat race of Tokyo, a setting where the taiko drum and its music were the center of everyone’s thoughts and ambitions.” (Fujie, Japanese Taiko Drumming, p. 96)
The training at Den’s school was hard, and he was being described as a harsh teacher. He based his idea of what an “ideal taiko player” should be like on the dramatic performance of taiko drumming by the film’s protagonist Muhōmatsu, and older former players of Ondekoza recall how Den had made them watch the film repeatedly to illustrate his point (Bender, Ondekoza’s Ōdaiko, p. 851-852).
In the end, Muhōmatsu no Isshō did not only inspire Den Tagayasu to entertain a romanticized, very specific idea about what drumming as a performance art should be like, it also drove him to search – and eventually find – a place where taiko was still practiced locally. Once he had founded the Ondekoza school, he would again draw on the movie for inspiration when it came to performance planning, stage design and drum arrangement.
I highly recommend watching the movie as well as reading the 2012 book Taiko Boom by Shawn Bender. The contents of the movie and its significance for taiko is described in detail on pages 78 to 88 of the book. If you don’t already own it, it’s well worth the purchase – and it is also available as an ebook for the Amazon Kindle.
- Bender, Shawn. “Drumming from Screen to Stage: Ondekoza’s “Ōdaiko” and the Reimaging of Japanese Taiko,” The Journal of Asian Studies 69, No. 3 (2010), p. 843-867.
- Bender, Shawn. Taiko Boom: Japanese Drumming in Place and Motion. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012.
- Fujie, Linda. “Japanese Taiko Drumming in International Performance: Converging Musical Ideas in the Search for Success on Stage,” The World of Music 43, No. 2 (2001), p. 93-101.