Monday, April 28, 2014

Biwa and Sumie at Microsoft Headquarters

In 2014, Soju Projekt presented a lecture-performance with Chikuzen-style Biwa master Kyokumi Tashiro at Microsoft Headquarters in Redmond, Washington. Kenneth E. Lawrence's pre-performance lecture provided background on the samurai warrior Yoshitsune in legend and history, and on the biwa (Japanese lute). The performance proper featured Kyokumi Tashiro performing the piece 'Funa Benkei' (Benkei on the Boat). The text of the piece, translated by members of Soju Projekt, was projected with paintings of scenes from the story by sumi-painter Kumiko Lawrence.

The story of 'Funa Benkei' is taken from 'Gikeiki,' an anonymous collection of legends that embroidered the life of the 12th century historical figure Yoshitsune. Similar in form to the Noh play of the same name, the story is split evenly between the melancholy and the dramatic. The first section relates the sad parting of Yoshitsune, fleeing by boat with several of his followers, and his lover Shizuka. 

Shizuka, with no heart to dance, merely waves her sleeves in sorrow.  

‘Misfortune brings great pain,” she sings, “but trust in me.” A happy song, though the sea is carrying her love away. May wind and wave speed him on! 

Last year he bravely rode forth, leading an army westward, destroying the Taira and drowning them in the sea. Now all knew his name: Yoshitsune! But a despicable villain’s slander made him a hunted man, a tragic misunderstanding. With only the rising moon to guide him, he hastily abandoned the capital, fleeing with a dozen trusted companions towards the western provinces. Their lives, like all lives, are the sport of fate. They fled in boats downriver, adrift like clouds on the water, finally arriving at the ocean shore. 

“Take your places aboard. Let’s get this vessel underway!”  

Shizuka is speechless with weeping, but what must be shall be. Let all the world whisper as it will. In tears she removes hat and cloak, drops them at her feet and bids Yoshitsune farewell. 

But the story immediately shifts from sadness to the supernatural.

“Pull away! Put your backs into it!”  

It is a good, stout ship and the day is perfect, surely a sign of coming good fortune. 

But a cloud hangs over Mount Muko where there was no cloud before. It comes their way. 

An outstanding crew, but this is no ordinary storm. “Look lively!” High winds; the waves rise. They are in the teeth of a tremendous gale. The ship has no hope of ever reaching land.  

Eerie! Spirits gather like clouds, rising, riding the uproarious sea. Wave-borne upon the ocean, the whole host of the Taira, who, not long since, drowned in the west, all of them! For them, the moment is perfect to vent upon all their pent-up rage. All hearts quake with terror as they stare, wide-eyed. “The Taira nobles drowned in the battle of Dan-no-ura now swarm before our eyes,” one man cries, “evil spirits resolved to destroy us!”  

“Hold your tongue,” shouts the captain.  

Before them, with a sword at his waist and gripping a halberd, they see the phantom of Tomomori, chief commander of the Heike. He glares at the ship. “Today, I will drown Yoshitsune in the sea!” With a scream he grips his halberd for battle, sweeps it wide. It curls like the waves, kicks high the salt foam, until all sight grows dim. 

Yoshitsune draws his sword and the two close in combat, but Yoshitsune’s skill is skill is useless against such a foe, a foe not of this earth. The warrior-monk Benkei protects his lord Yoshitsune by thrusting himself between the two. Rhythmically rasping together his rosary beads he summons the wrathful guardians of the four directions, in their center Fudo the Unmoving, whose noose binds evil powers. Together the protector divinities form a mandala. Fiercely Benkei prays until Tomomori’s sinister spirit staggers back. Benkei lends his strength to the straining crew as they row the ship on toward the distant shore. The evil spirit, pursues them still, but prayer and sword and the ebbing tide bear him, tossing and rocking, far across the waves: he disappears. 

Kyokumi Tashiro began her training in Chikuzen Biwa in 1993 with her grandmother, Kyokuei Kubo.  Her grandmother was one of only a few masters trained by the original Chikuzen Biwa Master Kyokushu Tachibana (1892-1967). Under her grandmother’s training, Kyokumi received her master certification in 2000. She received her master certification from the Chikuzen Biwa Nihon Tachibana Association and is a member of the Japan Biwa Music Society. She has an amazing voice. Soju Projekt looks forward to working with her more in the future.

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