GenRyu Arts celebrates 15th anniversary with ‘Rabbit in the Moon’

GenRyu Arts photo by J.K. Yamamoto

Born in early summer, fireflies are summer bugs: they die before seeing the fallen leaves. The ephemeral summer bugs made a rare appearance at the Brava Theater in San Francisco’s Mission District, and lighted the theater with the sound of Japanese taiko drums.

GenRyu Arts’ new performance, “Tsuki no Usagi,” or the Rabbit in the Moon, made its debut at the Brava Theater on Nov. 7. This is the 15th anniversary for GenRyu Arts, an organization that promotes Japanese and Japanese American culture in the San Francisco Bay Area through taiko performance and other traditional and contemporary music and dance forms.

Year 2010 celebrates numerous milestones for the U.S.-Japan relationship. It has been 150 years since the Kanrin Maru, the first Japanese ship to visit the U.S., reached San Francisco. This year also marks the 100th anniversary of the Angel Island Immigration Station’s opening. Often referred to as the “Ellis Island of the West,” the Angel Island Immigration Station was a key entry point on the West Coast for immigrants arriving from Pacific routes, including Japanese Issei who came to the U.S. to achieve economic prosperity. Some 60,000 Japanese passed through the Angel Island Immigration Station from 1910 to 1940.

“Tsuki no Usagi” was commissioned by the San Francisco Art Commission Cultural Equity Initiative to commemorate the centennial anniversary of the Angel Island Immigration Station.

“I wanted to create stories that would reflect experiences of immigrants,” said Melody Takata, the founder and artistic director of GenRyu Arts.

The theme of the 45-minute “Tsuki no Usagi” performance comes from East Asian folklore, a story of a rabbit that lives in the moon. The idea is based on the Buddhist story “Sasajataka” in which a rabbit chooses to sacrifice himself to feed a beggar by jumping into a fire. The rabbit was not burned and the beggar reveals himself to be a deity who is known as a protector of Buddhism. The virtue of this self-sacrifice is a core value in Japanese and Japanese American societies.

“Immigrants suffered from discrimination, but parents were willing to sacrifice and do anything for their children,” said Takata, a Sansei whose great-grandparents moved to Hawai‘i from Japan.

Takata said she wanted to create a performance that is endearing and involved children and nature. The theme of sacrifice was sweetly translated in “Jugoya,” a well-known Japanese children’s song about the rabbit. Mimicking rabbits’ ears with their hands, three children beautifully dressed in kimono danced along to the song sung by other children, who just started to learn to play taiko.

“Hotaru,” or firefly, was part of “Tsuki no Usagi.” Takata said that this is the first time that she choreographed a piece in darkness. The light representing the bug’s taillight created a fantastical atmosphere with the earthy sound of taiko. Although the theme of the firebug is melancholy because of its fleeting nature, the sound of taiko resounded powerfully in the stomach, evoking the memory of immigrants’ hard work, which this country is built upon. The taiko performance acted as a vehicle to help evoke the long-forgotten memory of the past when the first wave of Japanese immigrants landed on U.S. soil.

GenRyu Arts, preceded by Gen Taiko in 1995 by Takata, a multi-dimensional artist trained in taiko, Japanese classical dance and shamisen, or Japanese traditional guitar. GenRyu Arts, which was incorporated in 2008 and has become a nonprofit, is known for its collaborative work with groups.

To commemorate the 15th anniversary, well-known Japanese traditional music artists outside and inside the U.S joined the performance. Hideko Nakajima, Takata’s teacher with more than 50 years of experience in Japanese music, and Chizuru Kineya, an accredited master from the legendary Kineya shamisen family based in Tokyo, performed ozashiki music — traditional Japanese intimate teahouse music — throughout the concert. Kaori Nakano, a graduate of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, sang “Furusato” (homeland), a traditional Japanese song to revisit the experience of immigrants who longed for their homeland of Japan.

Tatsu Aoki, the artistic director and founder of Tsukasa Taiko and one of the most recorded bassists in Chicago, directed a dynamic performance of “Zaon/Yanagimachi,” in which taiko performers play the music while bending their bodies backward. Born in Okiya, a booking and training agent for geisha ladies in downtown Tokyo, Aoki’s performance offered the audience traditional Japanese music with a touch of jazz beat.

California state Senator Mark Leno attended the performance and praised GenRyu Art’s contribution to the city’s art education.

“We are all immigrants in this country, and this is the beauty of the American democracy,” said Leno. “GenRyu Arts takes up the task that the state of California is lagging far behind,” he said, referring to under-funded art education in California. GenRyu Arts is one of just a few organizations teaching taiko to children as young as four and-a-half years old.

Originally from Los Angeles, Takata grew up in the Japanese American community. Her first encounter with odori, or Japanese traditional dance, was when her father insisted she learn bon dance to honor ancestors in Obon season.

“I took to it right away,” said Takata, who started taking nihon buyo, or Japanese classical dance, in Fujima Ryu style when she was 10 years old. “I loved it because I could explore different characters,” said Takata. She said she liked to play both female and male characters.

“After having children, Takata said she was not able to devote much time to dancing and taiko performances. When she went to an Obon festival in San Francisco in 1995 and saw a taiko performance, however, she realized how much she missed it. “I really wanted to do it again,” said Takata.”

At first, she intended to teach seniors in order to honor her father, who died when Takata was 17 years old, but she said mothers with small children started asking her to teach taiko to their children. Soon after she started teaching, several organizations contacted her and asked her to produce performances. “Since then we are constantly performing,” said Takata, who also teaches taiko at pre-schools in San Francisco.

For Takata, putting out the 15th anniversary concert was a big challenge. Takata, who is in her mid-30s, was diagnosed with stage-one breast cancer in June 2009 and has underwent a mastectomy. She went through chemotherapy for months and its side effects caused memory loss.

“It was very hard because I didn’t have mental capacity. I read something and the sentence never made sense to me. It was very frustrating and I had to keep reminding myself to be patient,” said Takata. “I had counted on my physical strength but I could not even bend my body.”

Takata said teaching small children helped a lot and she owes a lot to the members of GenRyu Arts. Furthermore, Takata also had a mission that she could not just give up: she wanted to give back to the Nikkei community by giving pride to Japantown through GenRyu Arts performances.

Early this year, Takata led several meetings to talk about the 2006 purchase of a significant portion of the Kintetsu and Miyako shopping mall by Beverly Hills-based 3D Investments. Takata said that while it is part of the Nikkei community not to speak out, voices will not be heard unless they vocalize concern.

“People think that this isn’t about their community because they don’t live in Japantown. I’ve heard ‘I don’t live here.’ We developed it here and kicked people out,” said Takata, whose group practices in Japantown.

“It’s hard for them to understand that they are part of the community, but if we don’t do anything, we will lose something precious to San Francisco and the Nikkei community,” said Takata.

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