Friday 26 October 2018

Let us dance

It’s a hot summer night in Tokushima City, the home of Awa Odori.  They dance it all year round, but now it’s Obon, the peak of dancing season.  The centre of town is shut to traffic and the streets have been claimed by the people, dancers, musicians and spectators in their thousands from all over the country.  Zomeki rhythm fills the air and the dancing goes on for hours.  It’s getting late, and we all need to sleep, if only to come back and do it all again tomorrow.  But as the night draws to a close, there’s one last spectacle of Awa Odori to catch.  A glorious finale.  An absolutely iconic image of Awa Odori.  The Sou Odori.  The "all dance".

For the past 40 years, at the end of every night’s dancing during Obon, the 16 famous groups of the Awa Odori Shinkou Kyoukai association have gathered en masse at the Minami Uchimachi open air dance stadium for a combined parade.  Musicians enter first, claiming positions in the stands and on the side of the avenue before taking up the rhythm.  Lantern bearers go in too, standing an honour guard half way down.  Once the music starts, the girls take the lead, followed by the boys.  It must be a thousand dancers in all, with a few hundred drummers, flutists and lutists besides.  Just getting them in there in some kind of order is a study in logistics.  But the product...

A sea of half-moon straw hats and fans and lanterns swirling down the avenue.  Music that echoes across the city.  Chanting that lifts you up with its power.  The dancing carries on out the end of the stadium and down the street for as long as the music continues – they don’t call us the dancing fools for nothing!  Spectators climb down from the stands and join in to dance after the teams go by, which is just as it should be.  It’s a wonderful end to the night for dancing fools and watching fools alike.  A celebration of the spirit of Tokushima.  And once you’ve been a part of it, it’s hard to imagine Awa Odori without it.

But this year, there was no Sou Odori.  Or at least, there nearly wasn’t.

2018 has been an exceptional year for Awa Odori.  A season of drama.  It's been hard to understand from a distance, but my group Tensui-ren has been at the heart of it, and I’ve finally got some time to put it down on paper and make some sense of it.

Firstly, the key institutions that have been involved:

徳島市役所 - the Tokushima City Office, the local government body that directly oversees the festival hosted within the city's boundaries.

徳島市阿波おどり実行委員会 - the city office’s Awa Odori Implementation Committee that runs the festival in town every year.

阿波おどり振興協会 – the Awa Odori Shinkou Kyoukai, one of two major associations of top Awa Odori groups.  This is the one that Tensui-ren is in.

徳島県阿波おどり協会 – the Tokushima Prefectural Awa Odori Kyoukai, the other major association of top Awa Odori groups, most notably including the Gojahei team.

徳島新聞 – the Tokushima Shimbun, the local newspaper, still published daily and still the most influential media and news source in the prefecture.

It all started around April.  Awa Odori hit the national headlines when it came to light that the major festival in Tokushima City has been running at a massive financial loss for many years.  Somehow, the largest festival of traditional dance in the country, Tokushima's cultural icon that apparently attracts over a million people to Shikoku every summer, is hundreds of millions of yen in the red.  Ouch.

The initial investigation found that some kind of ticket sales deal with the Tokushima Shimbun newspaper was responsible for causing significant losses.  There were other causes, too, but whatever the Implementation Committee had agreed with the newspaper, they were getting shafted, and this went on for over a decade.  The committee and Tokushima City Office copped criticism for the size and length of this mismanagement.  And the Shimbun was rightly outed for its part and the undue influence it has wielded over the running of this activity.

Tickets are sold for seats at the four major street dance venues.  Aibahama is close to Tokushima Station, next to the famous Shinmachi Bridge.  Shiyakusho Mae is right next to the city office.  Minami Uchimachi is sort of between those two, a long curving stadium on the northern bank of the river by the Ryogoku Bridge.  And Konyamachi is across the river in the heart of Tokushima's night district.  On each of the four nights of Obon, at each venue you can buy tickets for the first 2 hours, or the second 2 hours, and prices vary depending on how good the seats are.  Of course, there are plenty of other places around town where you can see Awa Odori for free, but the top groups generally perform at the booked venues.

An analysis of ticket sales at each of the four major street venues found that sales in the first half of each evening were generally pretty good and evenly distributed across all four venues.  But in the second half, Minami Uchimachi had 100% sales, and the others were well down.  The reason?  There could be a number of things going on, but the conclusion drawn by the Tokushima City Office was that everyone wants to see the Sou Odori at the end of the night, causing the other venues to suffer.

In the name of trying to balance and improve ticket sales, the Implementation Committee took the decision to cancel Sou Odori.  They did this without first consulting with the Shinkou Kyoukai.  Their proposal was to instead have the famous teams, who are now not tied up with Sou Odori, spread themselves around all of the venues around town to perform finishing parades everywhere on a smaller scale.  Bye-bye iconic decades-old tradition.  Hello unconsulted, half-baked new idea.

Everyone was open to talking about ways to turn the festival around financially, but the primary concern of the dance teams is the performing.  The dancing fools just want to dance, and the likes of Tensui-ren and Ahou-ren in the Shinkou Kyoukai are the most committed dancing fools around.  You can't go telling these guys how to dance or where they’re allowed to dance or that they can't dance at all, especially when you’re dealing with a tradition like the Sou Odori.  Suffice to say that the Shinkou Kyoukai didn't take kindly to this.  Tensui-ren's leader, Yamada-rencho, was in charge of the Shinkou Kyoukai this year and duly led the charge in pushing back against the City Office.

May came around.  Meetings were had.  Media turned up.  Statements were made.  The City Office was determined to implement its new plan.  They knew how to turn it all around, consultation wasn’t required.  The Shinkou Kyoukai took a stand.  The teams refused to participate in this new end-of-program diluted version of Sou Odori.  Let us dance, they said.

Then some time around June came the defections.  As the rain fell hard and caused major flooding in Western Japan, Ebisu-ren was first to leave the Shinkou Kyoukai, followed by Uzuki-ren.  Both well regarded, top quality teams with long histories in the association.  I'm sure many of the average members of both teams were just sick of the politicking and simply wanted to get back to the business of dancing.  Let us dance, they said.  I don't know what the leaders of Ebisu and Uzuki were really thinking, what discussions they had with the City Office, what incentives might have been offered.  The cost of abandoning the Kyoukai was unknown.  But leave they did.  Traditionally strong relationships between Ebisu, Uzuki and the rest of the Kyoukai were strained to say the least, and pressure on the Shinkou Kyoukai mounted.

More meetings and statements.  National media attention.  Yamada-rencho becoming the face of the resistance, going head to head with the City Mayor.  Vested interests in the media played it up, the Tokushima Shimbun already looking bad because of the ticket debacle, and the City Mayor with his background as a TV presenter.  But the remaining members of the Shinkou Kyoukai were steadfast in their protest.  Let us dance, they said.

Then in July, the City Office doubled down.  If the Shinkou Kyoukai wasn't going to get on board with the city's vision, then they also couldn't dance at the other iconic performance of the festival, the stage spectacular Zenyasai.

Zenyasai.  My goodness, I remember when Ellie came to Tokushima to see it, and left with tears in her eyes.  Chiaki was fighting through tears as she spoke at one of these meetings with the City Office, crying on national television, pleading to dance on this hallowed stage that she has graced with Tensui-ren every year since she was a teenager.  I'm a little misty-eyed myself just thinking about it.

It always happens on the 11th of August, the day before Obon starts, thus the name "festival of the night before".  There are three sessions through the day - if you're performing, it's a full day commitment, not to mention all the rehearsals leading up.  The first hour is usually the Prefectural Kyoukai.  The second hour is the Shinkou Kyoukai.  Often there are new collaborations between teams to change things up each year.  The total two hours is a smorgasbord of all the sensations and spectacles that Awa Odori can offer on a stage.  And it ends with dancers from all 32 groups on stage and in the aisles, filling the massive ASTY hall with music and joy.  It's absolutely fantastic and I pinch myself whenever I think of the times I've had the privilege of dancing on that stage.

So by excluding the Shinkou Kyoukai, the City Office had effectively cut Zenyasai in half.  The two defecting teams could still go to Zenyasai, and the Ken Kyoukai was uninvolved in the dispute, but the Shinkou Kyoukai was locked out.  Could you really call this Zenyasai?  Tickets had already gone on sale, so what was the audience going to get now?  They were unmoved by these questions, by Chiaki’s tears, and by all the rest.  Dance our way, or not at all, they said.

Nothing much changed in the lead-up to Obon in mid-August.  Zenyasai proceeded without the likes of Tensui-ren and Ahou-ren for the first time in memory.  Obon kicked off on the 12th.  The morning dance from Tokushima Station across the Shinmachi Bridge happened as usual.  So did the Senbatsu performances at the local music halls in the afternoon.  The town transformed for the street festival in the evening.  Some kind of end-of-program parade was run at each major venue, without any participation from the Shinkou Kyoukai.  The mayor and the City Office claimed it was a success.  And there was no Sou Odori that night, for the first time in 40 years

But the cracks in the City Office’s vision were already starting to appear.  Ticket sales hadn’t improved.  The number of visitors to Tokushima hadn’t gone up.  In fact the opposite was apparent.  At Minami Uchimachi, where the stands would usually be jam-packed, there were so few spectators in the paid seating that it was possible to get a great view just by looking through the stands – no need to pay at all!

And the Shinkou Kyoukai hadn’t given up on their tradition.  There was a quiet negotiation with some of the other local teams for space in the dancing line up at one of the free venues.  On the second night, August 13, at around 10pm as the conclusion of the program drew near, the Shinkou Kyoukai teams, minus Ebisu-ren and Uzuki-ren, gathered at the head of this street.

Word got around.  The punters gathered to see what was going on.  The TV cameras swarmed.  Some City Office officials tried to intervene and stop the dancing, citing the danger of having such a large gathering of dancers and spectators in an open environment.  Yamada-rencho was in the spotlight again, telling the officials that if they wanted to stop the dancing, they’d have to explain it to the gathered crowd.  He walked away.  The team leaders gathered.  The decision was made.  Let us dance, they said.  Or not, it doesn’t matter, we’re going to dance anyway.

That night’s Sou Odori was one for the ages.  They didn’t need Minami Uchimachi.  They just needed the music, the street, and someone to dance for.  The thousand dancers, the hundreds of drummers, and the crowd of Tokushima, all there together with no seating or stadium to keep them apart.  A heaving mass of dancing, playing, hammering, chanting and singing bodies, the dancing fools right there with the watching fools.  An irresistible force reclaiming the streets of Tokushima and the right to keep on dancing, as people in this part of Japan have been doing for over 400 years.  There were no injuries.  No incidents.  Another little miracle of Japanese society.  The mayor was livid, but the feedback from the people on the streets and the dancers was clear – this is what Awa Odori is all about.

It didn’t happen again during Obon.  The Shinkou Kyoukai had made its point.  The last night of the festival, August 15, was affected by heavy rain, but the dancing went on until the last.  The trend of fewer ticket sales continued for the whole four days.  After the festival, the mayor acknowledged that the cancellation of Sou Odori had contributed to mixed messages about whether the Awa Odori festival was going ahead at all, causing a downturn in the number of visitors.  Maybe they shouldn’t have cancelled Sou Odori after all.

Not long after Obon, the Shinkou Kyoukai announced that it would run a special planned Sou Odori and stage performance to raise money for charities assisting victims of the Western Japan Flood.  This happened in September, which was great for me as I was there and could participate.  It was a beautiful day, sold out for the stage, well attended at Aibahama for the parade, successful in its charity goal, and also a successful little reminder to everyone that the dancing will go on.

So the notion of reinstating Sou Odori in 2019 is on the table.  Some parties continue to insist that Yamada-rencho and the Shinkou Kyoukai should be punished for taking their stand and pushing ahead with Sou Odori without permission from the city.  I heard something about it becoming apparent that the number of visitors to Tokushima has been vastly inflated over many years, probably to attract more advertising dollars.  The truth of this will have to come out if they're going to sort out the festival's financial issues.

And in the meantime, Ebisu-ren and Uzuki-ren are out on their own.  They have continued to dance at the Awa Odori Kaikan every few weeks, but that is likely to come to an end if they are not members of a major association.  Opportunities for their members to join Shinkou Kyoukai tours to interesting places like Taiwan and Paris have been withdrawn.  And it’s a little bit weird for families like mine – I’m in Tensui-ren, Masumi is in Uzuki-ren, and I have always been friendly with a number of people in her team, but are we now supposed to jump ship or stop associating with each other?!  I have fond memories of Tensui and Uzuki coming together to dance at our wedding.  Surely we’ll all take a deep breath and move on.

It remains to be seen how all of this will pan out, but in the relative calm of the off-season, hopefully level heads will come together to rebuild a vision for the future of Awa Odori.  Whatever they come up with, after this season's drama, they must surely realise that the money and the tourists and the influence are secondary.

Let us dance.  You've got to start with that.  Especially in the land where they sing of dancing fools and watching fools, they're fools just the same, so you might as well dance!  Let us dance and the rest will take care of itself.