… and You Thought Skateboarding was Dangerous!

This is a group of Awa Odori dancers from the city of Tokushima in Japan. In August every year, they participate in the biggest, most important, and most spectacular dance festival in Japan. It takes over the otherwise sleepy streets of the city completely. The population of Tokushima effectively doubles during the festival.

Even though I have been to Japan more times than I can remember, I regret I have never attended the festival. Fortunately, a troupe of Awa Odori dancers perform some of the most distinctive routines just about every day of the year at an indoor location in Tokushima. I have seen their performance a couple of times.

They are amazing.

[Is the general public invited to join in? Yes, even round-eyes are. See my Facebook post entitled Where the Fools Are .]

Awa Odori is not a complex dance. But it is distinctive. Its mix of costumes, colour, exuberance, synchronicity, and elemental music make it a hypnotic experience when observed. Adaptations of the style of Awa Odori keep cropping up all over the shop in places outside Tokushima. Imitation is indeed the sincerest form of flattery.

The dance relates to the centuries-old Japanese tradition of Obon, whereby dead ancestors return to earth to see how their descendants are getting on. Obon, which happens throughout Japan in August, is a happy time, essentially a welcoming ceremony for the returning dead. It is party time. It involves, among other things, vigorous group dancing. Awa Odori is the most famous of these dances.

The concept of the returning dead seems irresistible and pervasive across all cultures. Though we are bound to agree it is in no way supported by science, we all nonetheless choose to entertain such an idea to some degree or other. It is a comfortable prop for us, in the same way religion can be.

I use hauntings of precisely this stripe to frame the fictional story of Harry McMinn in my book, Where Pademelons Play. The pademelons in my story are nothing more nor less than the returning dead in representation.

Many Japanese art forms are culture specific, and tend to resist transfer to other cultures. In this respect, they seem to exemplify the shoguns’ policy of sakoku in the 17th and 18th centuries when Japan was effectively a closed society. Kabuki, Noh, and perhaps haiku are examples of such art forms.

But Awa Odori, and its attendant notion of the returning dead, is definitely an exception.

There are other exceptions. To mention a few: woodblock prints of the likes of Hokusai, Utamaro, &etc; the novels of Haruki Murakami such as Norwegian Wood, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, &etc; films from Rashomon to Shoplifters; and much more besides. Sushi, beer, and sake also travel very well indeed. I’m sure you must have noticed.

We should cherish the culture that gave us (among many other things) the Awi Odori dancers. And perhaps we could try to understand those other Japanese art forms that are a little less accessible to us. You never know what you might be missing.

Likewise, you can never know what you might be missing if you have not read my book.