okayama momotaro matsuri

The country under the mask

And so there was a festival in Okayama where groups of friends, community groups, alumni and students — any assemblage of any kind is welcome — form a kind of dance troupe between 30 – 100 members and perform to given theme to one of a dozen specific tunes. They follow behind a small truck blasting their tune down kilometer long shopping arcades, or city streets closed off. For hours and hours they dance before moving to the next venue.

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To keep relevant cities take whatever celebrity happens their way and find a way to make people take notice. It could be the 1000 year old rituals in Nara or this newer variant of dance, a variation of the Awa Odorti in (nearby) Shikoku. Okayama’s celebrity runs round Okayama Castle and Momotaro leading here to the Momotaro Matsuri.

The story is based around the legend of an historical event. In short, a group was pillaging the rural poor and a man gathered forces to attack and won. What’s interesting is how the story changes over time:

In the original story, which you can still find in bookstores, an old woman eats from a magical peach and regains her youth, beauty, virility. When her husband does the same his potency leads to a fruitful end: They have a child and name him Momotaro (Peach Boy). The story is retold sans fertility, youth, vigor and the old childless couple find a giant peach floating down the river, which happens to have a baby inside. It’s the WWII version, no longer available anywhere, that packs verve aplenty. Momotaro is changed into an allegory for the war.

Momotaro is Japan.

The animals in the story who help him are the Japanese people.

The ogres/devils they fight are the US.

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That version is not widely known now. I happened on it years ago when researching the symbolism in the story. It is a fantastic teaching tool, an example of forgotten and manufactured meanings. Remove the mask to find the story underneath, or dress it up differently to tell what you need to tell.

So what follows are photos from one of the hundreds of dance troops performing around the city. Each dance tells a story but under the swashbuckling or romance you can find the true nature of a great people. Watch carefully. They move in unison. Young and old; engaged in all fields or retired, or still in school; cross dressed or plainly one or the other, they are a people who endeavor to move as one.

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