Battle Royale!

By on August 5, 2008
Photo © Elena Derevstova
Every August Harajuku is taken over for a weekend by thousands of people dressed head to toe in colourful costumes, music blares out from enormous speakers and giant flags sway through the crowds as teams of performers parade rhythmically through the streets and park. The regimental teams could easily be mistaken for a parade in a communist state but on closer inspection it’s more akin to a carnival: elaborate costumes, smiling faces, thumping pop music fused with a traditional Japanese sound. The elecric atmosphere builds over two days to a dynamic, frenzied climax on Sunday afternoon; this is Super Yosakoi!

Yosakoi originated in the city of Kochi in the 1950s and is a modern taken on the traditional summer dance of ‘Awa Odori’. Teams can have up to 150 members and are comprised of men and women of all ages (from 3 to 83). The dances are elaborately choreographed and require months of practice. It can be an exhausting and emotional time but the will to compete and the desire to dance is strong. The dancers hold a ‘naruko’ (bird rattle) in each hand, often painted red with black and yellow clappers, and dance to a piece of music that incorporates the traditional ‘yosakoi bushi’ Yosakoi melody.

Teams can choose any type of mysic to dance to as long as some part of the original Yosakoi melody is used. This has allowed Yosakoi to use contemporary music and appeal to a new generation of devotees. Media coverage is expanding, and Yosakoi is attracting larger sponsorship. Fashion plays an important part too. Elaborate uniforms are worn by the top groups: usually a traditional, brightly coloured kimono designed especially for the event. Many companies now see Yosakoi as a new marketing vehicle to promote tradition with innovation. Yosakoi is emerging as a new dance culture; the fashion and music are combined with a sense of tradition and camaraderie bringing more teams and larger audiences year by year. Last year over 10,000 performers appeared and crowds of over a million came to see Super Yosakoi.

Teams train rigorously for up to 9 months of the year mastering a number of set pieces. In the run up to the big competition the dance groups perform at local events and festivals around the country. Team directors push their teams to the limit to produce a winning performance. It is a magnetic spectacle. Each performance becomes more energetic as the competition goes on. There are five performances per team over the two day period culminating in the final showdown on Sunday afternoon. It is truly intense and passion runs high. Just before the results are announced a hush descends over the stage. Judges take into account costume, movement, complexity, and synchronicity, every aspect is vital. Teams are fiercely competitive but it is always friendly, team members see old friends from previous years and there is a genuine sense of belonging as the teams battle it out on the stage and parade ground. Super Yosakoi takes place August 23rd & 24th. Let the battle commence.

About Heather Day