YIDFF 2009 New Docs Japan
Ultimate Land—A Year of Iwasaki Onikenbai
An Interview with Miyake Nagaru (Director)

The Arts as a Lingua Franca

Q: How did you become acquainted with the Iwasaki Onikenbai (sword dance) and why did you decide to make a film about it?

MN: Prior to this film I shot another documentary on Sado Island, about a Noh play entitled “Toki,” based on the Japanese crested ibis (toki). During filming, I met a man named Nakasyo Nobuo, who is a master musician of the Kanze school of Noh and who participated in the play as a member of the chorus. He mentioned he was traveling to Iwasaki for the August Bon ceremonies so I tagged along, and that’s where I first witnessed the Onikenbai. At that time, I also joined the post-ceremony banquet. I found the contrast between the solemnity of the sword dance and the openness of the communication at the banquet very interesting. Their conversations weren’t like that of a town closed off to the outside world, but rather receptive to different arts. I felt that the Onikenbai and the nature of the people who performed it wasn’t something confined to a sheltered, rural community.

Q: In making the film, why did you choose to follow the day-to-day life of this local community for a full year?

MN: In looking at arts like this from a Tokyo perspective, we tend to search for some kind of metaphor. We ask ourselves a variety of questions such as what the history behind such arts is or whether they are a ritual with religious significance. Initially, I saw things from that perspective, too. But in fact, the local people themselves don’t understand it and aren’t aware of those things. The people of that region have simply done it for generations. In understanding that and in seeing how these ritualistic arts become a common language, a lingua franca, that defines a local community, the direction of the documentary became clear. Additionally, I thought spending a year in Iwasaki would give the film a sense of perpetuity, as we could imagine each year typically progressing in the same manner. While individual performers may change over time, the roles remain unchanged and the cycle continues.

Q: The oral traditions of the dancing and prop-making are memorable.

MN: The dancing is taught through singing. It’s a particular type of oral musical notation based on a taiko rhythm. Through singing and dancing simultaneously, the timing and physicality of it become intrinsic. Regarding the props, as with most arts they utilize materials that are readily available. The people who make them aren’t professional artisans but carpenters, who carve faces out of wood. “Use what’s available” is one tenet of the arts, I believe.

Q: What kind of message did you want to impart through this film?

MN: That the proud traditions local communities share, through which people of different generations get together without discrimination, is something difficult for most of us to experience. Through the existence of the community depicted in the film, I hope viewers are able to consider their own place in the world from a different perspective. I’d also like it to serve as an opportunity for people engaged in some form of expression take a fresh look at their own creative process.

(Compiled by Ishikawa Munetaka)

Interviewers: Ishikawa Munetaka, Hiroya Motoko / Translator: Jason Gray
Photography: Kato Takanobu, Hiroya Motoko / Video: Kato Takanobu / 2009-09-18 / in Tokyo