I almost forgot these were performers and not actual beings that had crawled out from the pits of Japanese hell as they stomped around menacingly. Cymbals crashed and frantic drums filled the room, my heartbeat speeding up to match the rhythm.
But they are indeed performers – three men performing a traditional demon dance, Iwami Kagura to be exact. I had the pleasure of witnessing this killer local performance art while visiting Oda, Shimane Prefecture. A local group based in the little known prefecture, next to Hiroshima, was gracious enough to let us sit in on their practice.
If going to a Kabuki performance is like putting on your best suit and heading to the opera, attending Kagura feels like watching live action Lord of the Rings in a leather jacket.
Watching the performers twirl around each other in a frenzy for 40 minutes straight during a fight reminiscent of an aggressive ballet made me dizzy, and I wondered how they could handle it. They removed their oversized hannya (horned female demon) masks at the end to reveal faces dripping with sweat.
Many of us who are interested in Japanese culture are familiar with Kabuki and Noh – we’ve at least heard of them. The extravagant wigs and stark white faces painted with distinctive red lines that characterize kabuki are an image easily associated with Japan. Kagura remains relatively unknown both inside and outside of the country.
If going to a Kabuki performance is like putting on your best suit and heading to the opera, attending Kagura feels like watching live-action Lord of the Rings in a leather jacket.
What is Kagura?
With colorful costumes sewn with luxurious golden thread– costing up to ¥2 million– and elaborate masks showing ferocious gods and harrowing demons, Kagura reenacts classic Japanese folklore tales of good versus evil. Iwami Kagura is a faster-paced style native to the southern Chugoku region which includes Shimane, Hiroshima, Tottori, Yamaguchi, and Okayama prefectures.
Kagura originated within the Kojiki – a book that details Japan’s mythical creation and is regarded as the country’s oldest historical record, written 1,300 years ago. The story, called Amano-Iwato, involves the sun goddess Amaterasu who hid behind a rock obscuring the sun and causing eternal darkness to fall upon Japan. Honestly, I don’t blame her – she hid away because her brother was being a total jerk and throwing feces around!
The gods danced and played music to coax her out so that the sun would shine again. This is considered the first Kagura ever performed. The word itself literally translates to “entertaining the gods.”
Tales of creation
Though its origins are traced back to Japan’s early days, when exactly Kagura started being performed by us mere mortals is kind of sketchy and not accurately known by scholars. Back in the Imperial Court days (around 800 AD), it was performed as a ritual by Shinto priests and shrine maidens to honor the gods. These days, it’s more of an entertaining way to share these classic stories.
In comparison, Kabuki was first performed in 1603 – only 400 years ago – and gained a cult following between the late 1600s and early 1800s. Noh, another traditional art form, didn’t even become a thing until the 1800s.
Back in Shimane, it’s time for the real performance. The tale of the night we are watching is Orochi, the eight-headed serpent, and few are as wicked. The legend goes, Orochi has been terrorizing a village and devouring young women (what else would an eight-headed serpent do). The god Susano no Mikoto finds an elderly couple grieving at a nearby river because Orochi has eaten seven of their eight daughters and is coming back soon for the last. Mikoto says, “Don’t get sad, get even,” and vows to kill the dastardly beast, luring him in with poisoned sake.
As Mikoto cuts off each of the serpents’ heads, the audience explodes in applause and praise. At one point Orochi coils tightly around Mikoto and it looks as though he will be consumed by the demon. But, what kind of lame god would he be if he were to actually lose this fight?
The serpent costume worn by the performers is about 17 meters long and can weigh 12 kilograms. It’s heavy, and despite not being able to see out of the huge head (trust me, I tried it on) the performers make the choreography look effortless.
Where to see Kagura in Japan
Because the tradition was not always passed down from one generation to the next, it is rarely performed in urban areas. However, you can still witness it in rural areas of several prefectures including Shimane and Hiroshima as well as one spot closer to Tokyo in Saitama Prefecture. As it spread across Japan, Kagura evolved into different incarnations and styles varying by region so each one offers something unique from the other. If you wanna see this killer clash of the gods, check out the locations below.
- Tatsu no Gozen Shrine in Oda, Shimane, hosts performances every Saturday night from 8 p.m. to 9 p.m. ¥1,000.
- The Masuda EAGA Building in Masuda, Shimane, also hosts Iwami Kagura performances every Saturday from Jan. to Sept. from 7:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. ¥500
- Shinmeisha Shrine in Tokorozawa, Saitama, showcases Kagura at their yearly Autumn Festival on Sept. 15 (site in Japanese only). Free.
- The Hiroshima Prefectural Citizens Culture Center has two performances every Wednesday night (at 7 p.m. and 8 p.m.) from April 3 until Dec. 25. ¥1,200.
- Takachiho Shrine in Takachiho, Miyazaki, has performances every night from 8 p.m. to 9 p.m. at the Kaguraden performance hall on the grounds of the shrine. ¥700.
Kabuki and Noh performances, while amazing in their own right, can be difficult to understand even for Japanese, and the story often drags on slowly. The setting is more formal, and yelling at the performers to decapitate one another is probably not encouraged.
Kagura is the sexier, more exciting older sister who rides a motorcycle and slays serpents. She entices you with gorgeous and expensive outfits and once you’re invested she releases a fury on you.