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[Hidden Wonders of Japan] Fear, Mystery and Unpredictable Flames

A young performer brings new technology and vision to the ancient combination of fire and dance, and the ceremonial and performing arts of today’s Japan.

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The flames that rose in the dark blew past me with the wind. Entwined around both ends of the wick, they changed into various shapes while synchronizing with the performer’s movements. 

It was like something in the darkness was being purified.

Performing as part of the local Tondo-yaki ceremony when amulets from the previous year’are burned, in the New Year season at Kizuki Shrine in Kashiba City, Nara Prefecture. (Photo=Sankei)

The actors  are members of the Genka performance group, active mainly in the Kansai region including Osaka, Kobe, Kyoto in the center-west area of Japan. The group’s leader, Toshiyuki Higashitani (30), formed the group while in a juggling circle during his years at a university in Nara prefecture. 

After graduating from university in 2014, Higashitani brought the group into a full-scale schedule of activities. About 20 male and female performers currently belong to the group, and perform at various events using flames and LEDs.

Celebrating the local Tondo-yaki at Kizuki Shrine in Kashiba City, Nara Prefecture. (Photo=Sankei)

Higashitani has no master. He taught himself by reading textbooks on juggling and studying acts of overseas performers posted on the Internet. 

He burned himself several times as he learned. But as he practiced and became accustomed to handling flames, the idea of captivating people with the combination of body movements and sparkling flames drove his vision for the group.

Performing the spiral of flames floating in the dark at Kawai Town, Nara Prefecture. (Photo=Sankei)

The tools to bring his vision to life had to be made by hand, and Higashitani found himself researching what fuel was best to use for the performances. The group was repeatedly trying out new formulas for special materials. 

To add beauty and grace to the movement of the flames, he also incorporated Japanese dance and martial arts movements.

A vortex of flames floating in the dark during a performance at Kawai Town, Nara Prefecture. (Photo=Sankei)

Handling flames can be dangerous, so safety is prioritized.  Wind is the most troublesome opponent because when performing outside, the  direction from which the wind blows can be unpredictable.  

“When the wind blows from here or there, the flames go up vertically at one go. Fire spreads, and this is what I find scary,” said Higashitani, adding: “When that happens I change my technique to deal with it.” 

“The performers should not be at the mercy of the flames,” he said, with respect for both the performers and the flames. “One can create extraordinary things performing with flame and light. It draws people in.” 

Powerful fire performance. (Photo=Sankei)

As seen in Todaiji’s Shuni-e (water-drawing ceremony), torches and Takigi Noh (performance by firelight), flames and darkness are closely related to sacred rituals and performing arts. 

The flames burning in the dark evoke a primitive fear and feeling of mystery, long captivating human beings. Both Higashitani and those who watch the performance join a long line in history in this experience.

A performer uses flames to dedicate a performance ahead of the Tondo-yaki ceremony at Kizuki Shrine.

What is your hidden wonder of Japan? Upload your picture here.

(Read the story in Japanese at this link.)

(Photographs by Mamoru Inui, Photo News bureau, The Sankei Shimbun)