Nikko Edomura Utsushi-e

I took my summer session students to Nikko last weekend. We of course visited Toshogu and stayed at a nice hot springs inn, Tsurukame Daikichi. But as we did last year, we also visited Nikko Edomura. It's one of those "history" theme parks, this one set in Edo-era Japan. While it does give you a sense of what it might have been like in the Edo period (it does have some small museums on things like sword-making, etc.), it is less an accurate living history park than a kitschy recreation of a commercial image of Edo and should be enjoyed as such. It does have an open set for filming, but when I went there last year, that was all run down and not worth the trek up the hill. The main attractions are the various theaters, the ninja houses, and the characters running around on the streets. Edomura seems to be putting a lot of effort into staying alive (especially after Nikko Western Village went under), so there appeared to be more going on than even last year. Everyone had a fun time.

What was a very pleasant surprise for me, however, was the fact that one of their theaters, the Ryokokuza, was doing utsushi-e (for more on utsushi-e, check out this site by Kusahara Machiko). Utsushi-e, sometimes called gento, is the Japanese version of a magic lantern show that was very popular in the 1800s and a historical precursor to the cinema in Japan. The primary difference from the European varieties is that the projectors are light-weight and portable and the projection is done by several people behind screen. Not only do the still images move, but fast changes between slides or special slides with flipping or moving parts can really give the sense of an early version of the motion pictures. The show is usually accompanied by a benshi-like narrator.

I've seen utsushi-e before (in fact, the first time was with Iwamoto Kenji, who has penned an excellent book in Japanese on the subject), and actually the story presented at the Ryokokuza is one I've seen performed before by the Minwaza: "Daruma's Night Story." It was well done, especially considering the performers here and elsewhere at Edomura have to do multiple roles in multiple theaters each day. There were three projectionists and one narrator (who also did a bit of percussion) and my students, who learned about utsushi-e in class, enjoyed the show quite a bit. But since this theater did not enjoy the crowds of the others, I wonder if Edomura will keep on doing this. Still, I applaud the person at Edomura who thought of doing utsushi-e and sincerely hope they keep doing it, at least once in a while. 

Here is the Ryokokuza theater, with lots of images of Daruma:


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