School Arts Festivals

While I would have preferred to sleep in on Sunday October 2nd, I instead got up early enough to make it to the junior high by nine o’clock. This was the day of Bikuni Junior High School’s gakkoukai (学校祭), the school festival. I didn’t know exactly what to expect, except for a band performance and possibly some singing.

The building had clearly received an artistic makeover since Friday, when I last saw her. The hallways leading to the gymnasium now proudly displayed the students’ artwork. Paper hearts hung from ceiling throughout the length of the corridor, suspended like raindrops frozen in time, and an upside-down umbrella positioned like a chandelier, added to the rain imagery.  Every student had made a self-portrait and they covered the walls along with other art projects. There were interesting silhouette landscape pieces, and drawings in the ukiyo-e (浮世絵) style, many a recreation of kabuki actor Otani Oniji II’s famous portrait. Tables in the hall also displayed hand sculptures and papercraft models of sports cars and construction vehicles, like a backhoe.

The windows of the school’s main entrance were decorated with a colorful stained glass design, made from colored transparency sheets and black cardboard paper. With the morning sun streaming through, it made for quite a beautiful addition. Just inside the gym, I discovered another student art production; a giant papier-mâché Anpanman. Nearly two meters tall, this Anpanman was taller than any of the students who constructed him.

Families had piled into the gymnasium and found places to sit, either in folding chairs or on the floor. The homey floor seating was set front and center, a picnic-style ground cloth designating where groups could assemble, while the chairs were farther back. Spotlights had been set up on each side of the gym, with students and a couple teachers trading off the responsibility of running them at different times. After a quick speech by the Principal, the event was underway.

The first bit of the festival seemed to be a formal recognition of the decorating crew for all their hard work. This focused on the rapid production of the stain glass windows and the giant Anpanman. During the ceremonious presentation, students carried the papier-mâché idol on stage, the gym lights were turned off, and Anpanman was lit up. It turns out that his hollow body was equipped with light bulbs. It was an impressive spectacle, especially when you think about how quickly they put him together.

There was also a presentation of a giant photo mosaic that one of the teachers had made for the students. It was a massive picture of the students—probably around five feet by seven feet—comprised entirely of smaller photos, which also pictured the students. I couldn’t understand the explanation of how it had been put together, except that some special software had been involved. It was a stunningly cool gift.

The next part of the festival was the premiere of two plays, each written, directed, and preformed the students. The first play used well-known anime characters like Doraemon and Detective Konan, and told a story about time travel. The second play seemed to be about a struggling savings and loan, and at one point, almost all of the characters on stage were shot. (It then turned out to all be a rouse to trick another character.)  Both plays were rather lengthy and impressively complex…I think. I had difficulty understanding any of the dialogue, so I could only follow along by the actions.

Right before the lunch break, the PTA performed the inexplicably popular Maru Maru Mori Mori dance. I participated in this and actually had a lot of fun with the parents and teachers at our two practices. When we started learning the dance, I was already fairly familiar with it, having danced it multiple times in Shakotan’s Fire Festival with the Tomosukai group. As annoying as the song is—or rather, should be—it really grows on you after a while, and I came to genuinely enjoy the tune. Perhaps one can grow to like any song by mere repetition alone. Right after the break, the school band performed and truly rocked the house. I’ve been consistently impressed with everyone’s general musicianship in Japan, the school bands being a prime example.

Next, a series of musical performances took place on stage, some involving actual singing and others involving lip syncing and dancing. Most of the performances were renditions of recent chart-topping pop songs, but a couple songs were actually classic enka (演歌 – traditional Japanese folk ballads).

Popstar Idol Superstars: AKB48. Way too popular...

At this point, I need to explain that the boy band/girl band fad that swept the world in the late 90’s with the likes of the Spice Girls, N’Sync, and the Backstreets Boys, is still flourishing in East Asia today—in fact, it’s gotten rather out of hand. Pop stars of this variety are called aidoru (アイドル – from the English word “idol”), and they are omnipresent. Male singing groups like Arashi, EXILE, and SMAP continue to be immensely popular and the female groups like Perfume, Kara, and Girl’s Generation (those last two are from South Korea, by the way) dominate the airwaves. The epitome of this trend is the mega-pop juggernaut known as AKB48, but if I get started on that bizarre phenomenon now, we’ll be here all day.

The most entertaining musical act was a group of boys—all from the badminton team, I believe—dressed in drag and dancing to Kara’s song “Mister”. Apparently the boys did an accurate job of replicating the choreography from Kara’s music video, because the crowd went wild when they shook their asses around in a circular motion. I hadn’t seen the video beforehand, so I didn’t quite get the joke. It was surprising that parents and faulty alike applauded the lewd dancing, as I had been told that Japan was a conservative country.

The final part of the school festival was a choral performance. Each of the three grades sang a song, during which time I was quite intrigued because the performances were completely student directed. One student conducted the choir while another student played the piano accompaniment. It happened this way for all three grades and there was no staff involved in the actual performances. As a finale, the entire student body assembled on stage and sang together. The song was incredible beautiful, with male and female voices singing complimentary parts in harmony. There had been one morning, when I was feeling particularly homesick, that from the hallway I had heard the kids practicing that song. It had literally moved me to tears on that occasion. Therefore when I heard it performed at the festival, I was prepared and ready to keep my game face on.

Since the school festival was held on Sunday, school was off the following Monday. On Tuesday, with the kids back in school, there was a morning cleanup. In the aftermath of so much frivolity, the kids were required to take down all decoration and return the gym to normal. The stain glass window art got to stay up for a time, but everything else was taken down. It was particular sad to watch the kids dismantle the giant Anpanman, as they basically punched his papier-mâché head in and took him apart from the inside out. There really is nothing permanent is this world.

On Sunday, October 23rd, the elementary schools held their own gakugeikai (学芸会), or school arts festivals. Similar to the scheduling of the undoukai (運動会 – field day) events in the summertime, the elementary schools of Shakotan’s various villages were doing their school arts festivals on the same day. This meant that I was attending the morning portion of Bikuni ES’s festival, and then after lunch, I was headed to Hizuka ES for their event.

Since Bikuni is the big elementary school, their school arts festival was a spectacle to be enjoyed my many families, and the gym was pretty packed. Luckily, folks can sit on floor just as easily as in chairs in Japan, so there was ample space for everyone.

One highlight of the show was the first graders dancing to the song “100% Yūki” (100% 勇気) from the children’s ninja anime Nintama Rantarou (忍たま乱太郎). The cuteness factor was taken to extremes with each of the youngsters performing their dance in colorful ninja garb.

Besides the ninja the dance, my next favorite part was the school band, which impressed, as always. They even performed the theme song to the classic anime series Lupin III (ルパン三世). The 70’s spy disco tune is one of all-time favorite instrumental pieces and the kids did a great job playing it.

When Bikuni’s event broke for lunch, I hopped in the car and drove straight to Hizuka for their gakugeikai. Since Hizuka has only nine students, the event was sure to be on a smaller scale, but with just as much heart. In the beginning, the curtains of Hizuka’s stage were drawn back to reveal two of the youngest students, first grade boys, dressed in authentic kabuki (歌舞伎 – Japan’s classical stage dramas) clothing. My comprehension of the dialogue was very low, but I think they were simply opening ceremonies.

There was something different about Hizuka ES’s school arts festival that was immediately apparent. The audience at Hizuka consistently threw objects towards the kids on stage, much like the stereotypical roses thrown at opera singers. Instead of roses, however, the crowd tossed coins wrapped in paper called o-hineri (御捻り – wrapped offering). This was apparently a tradition originating from kabuki performances in rural areas. Fans would show their appreciation to their favorite actors by throwing o-hineri when the actor struck a pose. Literally tipping for performers, the more o-hineri you have thrown in your direction, the more the audience loves you.

Next, all the students of Hizuka ES assembled on stage to perform a choreographed dance number—all nine of them. (A small village in an isolated area, Hizuka doesn’t have many children.) The kids danced to an AKB48 song, with an impressive “HKD9” poster displayed behind them, complete with anime-style portraits of all the kids.

Since the school body at Hizuka is so small, the families really get involved in school events. The next part of the show was another AKB48 dance, this time being performed by a girl and boy, neither of whom could have been over four years old. Each kid was dressed in only knee-high frilly boots, a sequined bra, and tutu. Those outfits would have been scandalously inappropriate if the kids weren’t so young, and I was honestly hesitant to take a picture of the scene for fear that someone would see it in my photos and assume that I was a member of NMBLA or something. Also, I felt bad for the boy; dressed up as a girl and put up on stage for people to laugh at. He was so young that he couldn’t even do any of the choreography. He just stood there like a deer in the headlights as flashing cameras and camcorders accumulated evidence that his mother would later use to humiliate him in front of his first girlfriend…or so I imagined. Still, it sure made everybody laugh. A second family act followed, as some of the parents performed a Yosakoi dance.

The students showed off their impressive musical talents, first by singing in chorus, then by playing a tune on recorder. Next the kids played several different instruments in concert and performed John Denver’s classic “Take Me Home, Country Roads”. Just when I thought they couldn’t get more impressive, giant drums were arranged on stage and the kids played Taiko (太鼓)! It was simply amazing to watch, as the students were really quite good.

I was pretty blown away at that point…and that was when the unicycles came out. No seriously, there were unicycles! All nine of the Hizuka students could ride unicycles and they took turns performing various tricks, like navigating around cones, peddling backwards, and balancing the unicycle in place while using only one foot. They also all rode together making formations and cycling under other students linked arms. It was very impressive indeed.

After the PTA did a dance number dressed in colorfully ridiculous costumes, the event wrapped up with a student play. In Hizuka’s play, the students were all dressed up as cats, and I’m fairly certain that the prelude music they used at the beginning was actually from “Cats”, the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. Again I couldn’t exactly follow the dialogue, but the acting was at least better than your average Michael Bay movie.

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