Ancient Tales of Yomitan Village

Theater is just as much a part of Japanese culture as Broadway is a part of America.  It certainly is no longer the main form of entertainment, but it is an important one.  There are two major types of Japanese theater.  Nou is masked performance, while kabuki was geared more for the masses with song dance and drama.

I was fortunate to get an invitation to view a version of kabuki currently playing around Okinawa.  The play is titled 読谷山花織の宴 (untanza hanaorino utage).  The title doesn’t translate well into English, but I had a chance to speak with the writer after the performance and we came up with “Ancient Tales of Yomitan Village” as a workable equivalent.

They play covers several stories from roughly 500 years ago.  The writer Kurato Shinya-san told me that he got ideas for the play from various historical texts, then wove them into one play.  Just as the story wove together various aspects of Okinawan history, so too did the play feature many aspects of Okinawan culture.

From traditional Okinawan dances to martial arts, the play gave a unique insight into Okinawa past and present.  One of the stories covers exploits between two Ryukyu lords, namely between Yomitan and Katsuren in Okinawa.  The fight scenes were stylized yet energetic, building from Gojuryu Karate, but developed by the actors themselves.

“Ancient Tales of Yomitan Village” has been running since October 2010 and is performed by TAO Factory.  The cast includes Jr. High students to 23 year olds.  Since most of the cast members are still in school, they only practice once a week and give limited performances.  The performance I saw was performed on Kumejima Island and supported by the Board of Education and Yomitan Radio.

The stories were tied together with a story-teller called 語り部 [kataribe].  This narrator appeared between each play segment, and occasionally interacted with the story.  As with kabuki a central aisle was also utilized for dramatic entrances and exits and to tie in the audience with the performance.  Instead of extravagant sets, the cast used props, lights, and people to create new scenes.

In major fight scenes the cast wore black sheet-like garments to create a unique sense of tension, as if there were a whole army fighting around the main characters.  In another scene, several black-clad figures formed a giant shark for the hero to vanquish.

The performance was accompanied by a live band with songs from both the group and actors.

If you’re in Okinawa, I highly recommend taking the time to see this performance.  It is a unique look into Okianwan culture and a fun, well-done, production.

Production Schedule (here in Japanese)

March 24

Place: Naha Shimin Kaikan Hall

Time: 1:00 and 5:00 (seating begins 1 hr before)

Cost: 500-2000yen

March 25

Place: Kadena Cultural Center

Time: 1:00

Cost: 2500yen (reserved Seating)

March 31

Place: Yomitan Cultural Center

Cost: 2000en (free seating elementary students free)

Time: 1:00 and 5:00 (seating begins 1 hr before)

Tickets can be purchased by phone 098-989-9459 or on various websites for each event.