A Note From Nick, from Urada, Japan

A first dispatch from Nick Wilson at our Australia House Residency for Echigo-Tsumari:

We are now at the half-way mark of our People’s Puppet Project in Urada and our residency at Australia House, Echigo-Tsumari. One week into the workshop and we have the makings of six giant puppets, a wealth of narrative ideas and imagery, a unique and beautiful mix of sounds and musical ideas, and a diverse and talented team of residents who are getting really excited about their performance next week.

Through discussions with the community we decided on six puppet characters to begin work on: Jisa and Basa (Urada grandparents), Magomusume (their granddaughter, a fashionable Tokyo student), a Kamoshka (the amazing-looking Japanese serow), an Akashobin (the iconic Ruddy Kingfisher), and a Kappa (a troublesome mythical water sprite).

We’ve explored the local environment with our imaginations captured by this climate of such extreme seasons, intrigued by the details of small-town culture in an ageing and dwindling population and moved by the warmth and generosity of residents as we dove head-first into folk-tales and old family homes. Some local stories have been put on as annual school plays here since the old folks were students themselves. The Kappa is shadowing us in silence, our sixth member.

It was clear instantly that this would be a two-way creative exchange: we’ve been treated to intimate Taiko, Chindon and loungeroom Karaoke performances, been invited to share in local mythologies and artforms, brought home-grown fruit and veggies, been shown how to make costumes out of last season’s rice straw, and even taught some shoe-weaving skills by Urada women, making our own beautiful braided slippers from disused old bed-sheets.

On the surface the Urada narrative is one of departures, and its location is the past. We learned for instance that the population has dropped from 2000 in the 1960’s to 300 today, with an average age pushing on 70. The 2011 earthquake was the last straw for many households: a small exodus, we are told, of families desperate but unable to say. Our workspace is not only the gymnasium of an abandoned school, but also the emergency camp where the earthquake victims gathered on that early Spring night and slept like one big family on the floorboards.

But the personal stories from our workshop group paint a different image, one more human than statistics and more colourful than disaster: one participant, 30, told us how he came back here from the city after the earthquake to help rebuild, and was so inspired by the strength and cooperation of the community that he found here that he repatriated. Our amazing young translator and her boyfriend are recent tree-changers from Tokyo who are learning to farm rice, choosing the serenity and community of Urada over the noise and convenience of the city. Our abandoned gymnasium is the home of a nine-strong children’s Taiko drumming group. For all we’ve seen they could be the only nine children here: what they lack in numbers they make up for in community spirit, creative passion and musical timing. Their rehearsals in the gym have been dynamic, and their performance this week at Noh Bu Tai was a real treat to watch. The elderly residents have told us they take pride in all these things, and also see in them a very real hope for the future of Urada.

So these are the ideas inspiring our work as we enter our second and final week of development. The landscape, the building we work in and the people who come; the folktales, but more importantly the folks who are telling us the tales. They are Urada’s present. The adults returned, the children grown up, the dormant classrooms erupting with noise.

We can’t wait to see where they take it. We’ll find out next weekend.

Bye for now,

Nick, Rosalind, Andy, Stéphane and Ignatz.

This is an Asialink Arts Residency Project supported by the Australia-Japan Foundation and the Australian Embassy, Tokyo.

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