Kumiodori is a Japanese performing art found on the Okinawa islands. It is based upon traditional Okinawan music and dance, but also incorporates elements from mainland Japan, such as Nogaku or Kabuki, as well as from China. Kumiodori dramas recount local historical events or legends, accompanied by a traditional three-stringed instrument. The phrases have a particular rhythm, based upon traditional poetry and the distinctive intonation of the Ryukyu scale, and are performed in the ancient language of Okinawa. The physical movements of the performers evoke those of a pythoness at traditional rituals of ancient Okinawa. All parts are performed by male actors, and techniques unique to Okinawa can be seen in the methods of hair-dressing, costumes and decorations used on stage. Kumiodori plays a central role in preserving ancient Okinawan vocabulary as well as transmitting literature, performing arts, history and ethics.
Kumi odori was born out of the necessity of diplomatic acts. In 1372, King Satto of Chuzan consented to follow the tribute system with China and, as part of this system, Chinese envoys settled in Okinawa for approximately six months out of the year whenever the succession of a new king needed to be confirmed by the Chinese emperor. It was essential that these important visitors be entertained, so kumi odori was developed in 1719 by the odori bugyo, or minister of dance, Tamagusuku Chokun. Appointed to the position in 1715, his main responsibility was to commission entertainment for the lavish banquets held for the visiting emissaries. He had previously made five trips to Japan, stopping in both Satsuma and Edo (today’s Tokyo). While there, he studied all the fine arts, gaining knowledge of kyogen, kabuki and Noh, which greatly influenced his work (Foley 3). He was inspired by the Chinese arts as well, and at this time Chinese literature, Confucianism, and even the sanshin, an instrument later adapted for kumi odori performances, had been absorbed into Okinawan culture. Kumi odori was staged for the first time at the Choyo banquet in spring of 1719: Shushin kaneiri (Possessed by Love, She Takes Possession of the Temple Bell) and Nido tekiuchi (The Children’s Revenge), which were Chokun’s first works, were performed by male aristocrats and remain a major part of the repertory to this day.Read
With the fall of the Tokugawa shogunate and the rise of Meiji Rule in 1868, kumi odori was all but forgotten. The aristocrats who previously enjoyed the luxuries of time and money that allowed them to study court dance were now scarce in number but, through a few notable figures, it was passed down through the generations and performed for the general population. Even the common people now had the chance to enter the schools and become performers. After the American occupation of Okinawa came to an end and Okinawa was ceded back to Japan in 1972, there was a revival of sorts of all the indigenous art forms. The Japanese support of local Okinawan arts is a source of much debate. Although Okinawan culture was suppressed by the Japanese government during the war, but the On May 15, 1972 kumi odori was proclaimed a nationally important intangible cultural property, or kuni no juyo mukei bunkazai, under the Cultural Properties Protection Law, or Bunkazai Hogoho.
Elements Of Kumi Odori:Read
Kumi odori is a mixture of dance styles that has its roots in Okinawan, Chinese, and Japanese methods. In addition to this, it incorporates qualities from religious dances, kami ashibi or chondara, and chants, umui, which were prevalent in villages of the past. A true conglomerate, it merges music, song, narrative, and dance all for a dramatic effect. Originally performed by completely male casts of aristocratic origin, today it is also performed by women who typically take on the roles of females or young males. In the past, casting was dependent greatly on body type, and smaller males would perform these parts. The movements of the kumi odori are very slow and deliberate. There are no shows of bravura nor are there any obvious feats of difficulty, rather the complexity of the steps lies in its restrained simplicity. Highly stylized, its characteristic gliding walk is said to be one of the hardest steps to master. In classical ballet, it is said that it is more difficult to truly master bourrees than it is to complete multiple pirouettes, although the latter may look more impressive, and the same notion applies here.
Although kumi odori shows greats parallels to the no style of performance, there are also several characteristics that provide distinction between the two. Both feature sparse settings, eliminating the need for elaborate backdrops or scenery. Similar material, structure, and quality of performance echo in both. However, where no deals with Buddhist thought, kumi odori leans toward Confucianism, choosing to promote moderation rather than enlightenment. Where no performers would typically wear a mask, kumi odori performers express their characters through makeup and other means (Foley 3-4). Facial expressions are understated and emotion is displayed through the movements of the head or the cast of the eyes. The eyes always lead the head, and just as in classical ballet, the eyes arrive first and the rest of the body follows. Such careful attention to detail gives a refined and controlled action life, without which the art would cease to give the desired impression.
Chokun used ryuka, the classical poetry of Okinawa, and classical music for his songs. Instruments typically included three stringed instruments: the sanshin (brought from China), the kutu, and the kucho; the hanso, a flute; and two drums, the odaiko and the kodaiko. The lyrics were usually sung by the sanshin players, who were the most important instrumental component, and songs were used to heighten the mood in intense situations. These songs were crucial to the performance, and often replaced dialogue much like in Broadway musicals (Foley 8). And as opposed to the spirited music of Okinawa’s common folk, this music was formal and somewhat austere, projecting the idea of nobility through the music. Delivery is formal and full of metaphors just as in Japanese literature of the time. Two styles were applied: strong singing, or kyogin, which was reserved for powerful male roles, and soft singing, known as wagin or yuwajin, which was used for female or young male roles. It is important to remember that most of the important singing was done by the musicians. The musicians either sat onstage or stage left during the performances, or sat behind a drop since the stage was ordinarily an eighteen-foot platform. When performed in the present day, the musicians will sit either stage left or in the wings, preserving the uncluttered look of the original, and it is interesting to note that at no time are there more than six actors on stage. It is said that the essence of the action holds the importance, rather than the action or peripheral elements themselves. Similarly, realistic props were avoided, and would rather symbolize ideas instead of being taken literally.