There are tens (and possibly hundreds) of thousands of festivals in Japan, but there only four where you can see children performing ‘kabuki’, or traditional Japanese theatre, one of them being at the Demachi Kodomo Kabuki Hikiyama Matsuri in Tonami.
As such, this festival is extremely popular among kabuki aficionados, with busloads of them turning up sometimes just to see a single performance. Each session is also introduced by one of Japanese TV’s top kabuki commentators and a very famous ex-kabuki actor in his own right.
Interestingly, though, this amazing ad unique spectacle attracts little attention from other tourists and visitors…
In the 200-year old festival dedicated to the Demachi Shinmeigu shrine, children from 6 years to 13 years, who undergo strict training for several months prior to the matsuri, perform kabuki plays on an ornately decorated hikyama (wheeled float) at various places around town over the course of two days in late April .
Originally Tonami consisted of three separate towns, each with its own kids kabuki group (and hikiyama), and even now the three groups rotate, with each performing once every three years.
This year was the turn of Nishimachi (or ‘western town/district’) to perform, using their hikiyama that dates back to 1789 as their stage.
There are actually three hikiyama:
the one used by the actors
One for the master of ceremony, who introduces and sets the scene for the play
And one for a singer accompanied by a shamisen player, who add extra parts/explantions to the play’s storyline through song
Kabuki is a traditional Japanese form of theater with roots tracing back to the Edo Period (1603-1868). It is recognised as one of Japan’s three major classical theaters along with noh and bunraku, and has been named as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage.
Kabuki is an art form rich in showmanship. It involves elaborately designed costumes, eye-catching make-up, outlandish wigs,
and arguably most importantly, the exaggerated actions performed by the actors.
The highly-stylised movements serve to convey meaning to the audience; this is especially important since an old-fashioned form of Japanese is typically used, which is difficult even for Japanese people to fully understand.
Plots are usually based on historical events, warm-hearted dramas, moral conflicts, love stories, tales of tragedy of conspiracy, or other well-known stories.
A unique feature of a kabuki performance is that what is on show is often only part of an entire story (usually the best part). Therefore, before the play begins, the master of ceremony gives an explanation to the audience of the storyline.
When it originated, kabuki used to be acted only by women, and was popular mainly among common people. Later during the Edo Period, a restriction was placed by the Tokugawa Shogunate forbidding women from participating; to the present day it is performed exclusively by men. Several male kabuki actors are therefore specialists in playing female roles (onnagata).
Thus, originally, the child actors at the Demachi Kodomo Kabuki Hikiyama Matsuri were all boys, but that changed after the war when girls were also allowed to take part.
Total number of foreign tourists attending apart from me: 0