As A Japanese Mountain Village Shrinks, So Do Its Prospects For Kabuki : Parallels For more than 300 years, children have performed kabuki, Japan's classical theater, in the village of Damine. But as residents age or leave for cities, Damine is running out of young performers.
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As A Japanese Mountain Village Shrinks, So Do Its Prospects For Kabuki

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As A Japanese Mountain Village Shrinks, So Do Its Prospects For Kabuki

As A Japanese Mountain Village Shrinks, So Do Its Prospects For Kabuki

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And now to a tiny Japanese mountain village where since the 17th century, children have been performing Japan's classical theater, kabuki. But with Japan's aging population and migration to cities, the village is running out of performers. NPR's Elise Hu reports on a tradition and a town that might be disappearing.

ELISE HU, BYLINE: High up on a leafy mountain, before climbing even higher to the Buddhist temple, you must first purify yourself before the gods. My local producer has to show me how.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Wash left hand, right hand and then you wash this - the handle for the next person.

HU: This is no ordinary day in central Japan's Damine village. It's a sacred one. Prayers in the centuries-old temple begin early in the morning. Today, locals will put on a show of traditional kabuki theater, a day-long program that changes each year.

It's two hours before the performance, but already, there are some elderly Japanese who have brought in their blankets underneath the cover of this performance area.

It's held up by bamboo rods, has raised skyboxes and it's all covered with a green tarp. The space can seat about 250, which is also the population of the whole village. Every year, the locals perform to an audience of mortals but more importantly, to Guanyin, the goddess of mercy.

HINA TAKESHITA: My name is Hina Takeshita. I'm 12 years old.

HU: She will star in the closing kabuki play, which is always put on by the children. Takeshita needed only a month to learn her part in this highly stylized ancient art because she's performed kabuki every year since she was 6.

HINA: (Foreign language spoken).

HU: "Legend has it," she tells me, "that hundreds of years ago, the mountain village was jeopardized when someone accidentally chopped down one of the shogun's trees. As news spread, he was coming to investigate. The villagers prayed to the gods. They promised to perform kabuki every year if the goddess of mercy could make it snow. A rare June blizzard arrived, thwarting the shogun's visit and saving the village."

HINA: (Foreign language spoken).

HU: "So we've been playing kabuki ever since then," she says. That promise has now gone unbroken for 362 years. Kabuki is full of metaphor and performed in a classical Japanese language. The gestures and dances are specific and difficult for first timers. So these children are key to the tradition because they've practiced kabuki most their lives. They learned it from their parents who also performed as children. But now the village has only 10 children left.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Foreign language spoken).

HU: The mountain temple overlooks Damine Elementary School. The kabuki tradition is so important to the village that town leaders keep the elementary school open for 10 kids so they can continue their kabuki training. The combined first and second grade classroom has only four desks. But this is typical of Japan's mountain towns. Families have been deserting them for decades.

MITSUAKI YOKOYAMA: (Through interpreter) As someone who lives in this village, it's definitely not a happy thing for me.

HU: Mitsuaki Yokoyama is the mayor of Shitara, the small township that oversees the village.

YOKOYAMA: (Through interpreter) There's a phenomenon called kaso, which is young people started leaving the town to move to the city to find work. And that phenomenon began about 50 years ago and has continued to this day.

HU: To try and reverse the trend, local governments have come up with incentives to lure Japanese back to the mountains. One program here offers young families not only dirt cheap land but also up to $45,000 toward appliances and furniture for their homes. If these policies don't work, it's unclear how long the kabuki will continue. Young performer Takeshita says the promise to the goddess is they'll do it until there are only three families left.

HINA: (Foreign language spoken).

HU: "I hope it goes on forever or at least a hundred more years," she says. Backstage, the children are minutes away from their festival-closing finale. Eight-year-old Yukai Senbo is caked in white makeup and heavy eyeliner, wearing colorful layers of kabuki costuming and a weighty wig on his head.

Are you nervous?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken).

YUKAI SENBO: (Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: A little bit.

HU: Two elderly Japanese musicians provide the score and narration. They've been playing traditional Japanese instruments for 70 years. Then, the little ones take the stage, hitting their marks.

UNIDENTIFIED BOY: (Foreign language spoken).

HU: After a difficult pose or a funny sequence, the crowd shows its approval with applause and by tossing paper-wrapped coins on the stage.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Foreign language spoken).

HU: Watching the children contort their bodies in specific poses, reciting lines far beyond their years, you can see why the villagers hope this goes on forever. The mayor of Shitara is in the audience watching proudly. I remind him the gods have saved this village hundreds of years ago from a samurai.

But from depopulation, could the gods save this village again?

YOKOYAMA: (Through interpreter) He said only the gods know that for sure.

HU: If there's one place they keep the faith, it's this one. Elise Hu, NPR News, Damine village, Japan.

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