Saturday, December 11, 2010

Go Go Geisha

Last Saturday Justin and I had the chance to use some free school tickets to go see a geisha dance performance downtown at the Hakata Theater. Unfortunately we weren't allowed to take photographs during the performance, so you'll have to settle for my descriptions.

Before we get started, one amusing tidbit about geisha dance and the Hakata Theater: the performance went from 11 AM to about 1 PM, and you were allowed to eat bento lunchboxes in your theater seat. Japanese people must just be more tidy eaters than Americans.

The stage and sets were elaborate and wonderful. One dance had a huge, brightly-colored multi-story house set which started out as just one story but then rose from the stage. Above the stage, there were strings of cherry blossom petals, or their nonunion theatrical equivalents, which sprinkled lightly down on the dancers like pink snow. Very graceful and beautiful.

My favorite part was the geisha costumes, although "costumes" may not be the correct term for geisha apparel. (When Justin's mother asked Justin's aunt Jen, who was living in Hong Kong, if she was going to go out for Chinese food, the aunt responded dryly, "Here, we just call it food." Geisha probably feel the same way about their clothes.) In fact, this section will be plagued by linguistic perplexity, as I also still don't know if the plural of "kimono" is "kimono" or "kimonos." Even Wikipedia won't take a clear side. Perhaps I should just go with "kimoni"?

Although you can buy them in cheaper modern synthetics like rayon, the holy grail of kimono fabric has always been silk. A single kimono can cost, I have read, over $10,000 USD, and a full kit (including the obi, or belt, and the underlayers) can pass $20,000. This is because of the quantity and quality of the fabric involved and the necessity of hand-stitching. No geisha would be caught dead in rayon, so what we saw was the real deal. The geisha can own the kimono herself, or wear one that belongs to her geisha house. If you've read Memoirs of a Geisha, this may all be sounding familiar; it appears to be one of the few facts that people think the author got right. (Not that I care: I liked it anyway.)

Dancing in a full outfit which weighs up to 40 pounds is quite the task, and probably explains why geisha dance looks like it's being done in slow motion. Now, I've done Taekwondo, and everybody's most hated exercise was doing the forms and kicking techniques in slow motion, because it's just excruciating. Doing things fast is much easier than doing them slow. And the women all scuttle around the stage with their legs half bent, an motion so trying that it made Justin's knee hurt just to look at it. Even an untrained goober like me could notice and appreciate the attention to detail of geisha dancing - the precise timing and angle of a head tilt, the movement of the eyes, the slight turn of the arm that sent a ripple down a long sleeve.

But, and I hate to say this, being difficult did not make it interesting. Maybe I would have liked it more if I could have understood the narrative, which was being sung by other geisha accompanying the dancers on traditional instruments. Since I couldn't follow the story, my personal enjoyment was limited to the moments of particular visual appeal, like a semi-sheer kimono sleeve whirling through a stage light, or a hem setting cherry blossom petals swirling across the stage. Oh, and I really enjoyed watching the black-clad ninja stage hands, who would scurry in from off stage like Wimbledon ball boys carrying props or helping with costume changes, and then zip back off into the wings. I probably wasn't supposed to be watching them, though.

Overall verdict: I really, really respect geisha dancers as artists and as athletes, but geisha dancing is not for me. I posit that football : sumo :: ballet : geisha dance. And seeing as I've genuinely enjoyed consecutive seasons of lousy DI-AA football yet can't face the Nutcracker after eleven months off, I think we could have predicted this result.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Christmastime in Canal City

Canal City Hakata is probably Fukuoka's most famous mall: it's a big, labyrinthine construction with outdoor promenades and a big spherical performance space that looks like something out of Dr. Robotnik's lab. We wrote about the place in a post back in August.

For various reasons (which include a sweater vest and a co-worker who plays piano in the Hyatt on the weekends), we've been down to Canal City a few times the last couple weeks. They've really decked the place out for the Christmas season, which is purely a commercial holiday here in Japan (any excuse to shop), in stark contrast to the almost entirely religious celebration we saw in Korea.

Anyway, here are some shots from a very festive Canal City.

Nana eats a hard-earned brownie & ice cream crepe in front of . . . I don't know, some kind of snow palace bridge maze? (Did I mention that Canal City has an ornamental canal running through it?)
Cleaning up after glitter rained down on the Dr. Robotnik stage.
At regular intervals, this pool of water erupts into a fountain show synchronized to holiday music. "Sleigh Ride" seems to be a favorite here: we hear it EVERYWHERE.
We never did figure out what was in this strange mushroom hut, which was also suspended over the water.
A video of an odd little musical display set up at one of the two minor stages at either end of the mall:

In related news, we're into the final push before Christmas break (!), so don't be surprised if you don't hear much from us this week.