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JAPAN! Culture + Hyperculture

Watch, Listen, & Learn

The hypnotic dreamscapes of Sankai Juku

As Japan's most famous butoh company, Sankai Juku creates performances featuring breathtaking, large-scale staging. Founded by artistic director Ushio Amagatsu in 1975, the company has toured more than 700 cities in 43 countries and won countless awards, including the Olivier Award for Best New Dance Production in 2002.

When the company made their critically acclaimed U.S. debut with Kinkan Shonen in 1984, New York Times dance critic Anna Kisselgoff declared, “It would be misleading to apply standard Western interpretations to the symbols served up so luxuriantly in the dreamlike productions of Sankai Juku. Like all groups that are part of the anti-Establishment dance movement called Butoh in Japan, Sankai Juku has a strong preoccupation with grotesque, distorted and deformed bodies. And yet [they] manage to suggest that aberrations are so much a part of the natural order of things that they can be beautiful.”

Amagatsu has described his work as "a dialogue with gravity. If the European/American dances are based on the concept of being free from gravity, maybe we can say that in contrast, my dance is based on that of sympathizing or synchronizing with gravity."

The company's signature style remains a unique and powerful influence on the contemporary dance scene. "The singular glory of Sankai Juku," marveled Time Magazine, "is that it achieves almost pure metaphor. It is not like anything else."

Ninagawa’s striking stagecraft in Shintoku-Maru

Known for his imaginative stagings of classic works, award-winning director Yukio Ninagawa has been called "one of the great image-makers of modern theater" (London's The Guardian). Blending drama, spectacle, and a propulsive rock score by Akira Miyagawa, Ninagawa’s tragic fable of love, lust, and revenge Shintoku-Maru is based on an ancient Japanese noh play written by Shuji Terayama and adapted by Rio Kishida.

Although performed in Japanese, Shintoku-Maru is a universal story. As Graham Sheffield, Arts Director of London's Barbican Theatre describes it, "The power of Ninagawa's visual and theatrical vocabulary ensures that the language becomes what you see and absorb. The clarity of his imagination ensures that audiences are compellingly drawn into his unique world whatever their native tongues."

The production stars Tatsuya Fujiwara, one of Japan's hottest young actors known for movie roles ranging from Death Note to Battle Royale. Chosen from an open audition for the 1997 London production at the age of 15, Fujiwara here reprises his acclaimed, star-making performance as a young man haunted by the memory of his departed mother and strangely drawn to his new stepmother, portrayed by the magnetic Kayoko Shiraishi.

Read the English synopsis of Shintoku-Maru.

Explore the arts of Japan with an Interactive Passport

I PASS interactive passportChildren of all ages can learn many fun and fascinating facts about the ‘hyperculture’ of Japan through the iPass Interactive Passport created by ArtsEdge and the Kennedy Center Education Department. This special site contains background on many of the festival’s artists along with explanations of the vocabulary of Japanese arts. Interviews and video features will be posted as the festival happens. Plus, kids can pick up clues as they explore the site to answer a quiz and unlock the code for a downloadable surprise created especially for JAPAN! by Shin Tanaka.

Meet MOMO, the official festival mascot

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Created by award-winning Japanese artist Kenjiro Sano, who also designed the festival logo, playful pink monkey MOMO serves as ambassador, greeter, and entertainer for the festival. Using the dot grid of the logo, Sano created MOMO and his pixellated friends to celebrate the fun and futuristic aspects of JAPAN!

The use of cute mascots is not uncommon in advertising but nowhere else have these yuru kyara ("weak characters") permeated every aspect of daily life like in Japan. From events to products to the local police department, characters are everywhere to inform, instruct, warn, advise, and amuse. And almost anything can be transformed into a character – food, inanimate objects, body parts, even abstract concepts like labor rights.

Many of these characters are designed with big eyes, smiling faces, and waving hands to make them more endearing. This "cuteness" or kawaii factor is another interesting aspect of Japanese culture. It has pervaded so much of the country's popular culture that it is not just a style but a philosophy. Some say it is a form of rebellion against the harsher realities of modern life. Others feel the characters are a healthy form of entertainment. But whether they are mass-market products like Hello Kitty or just helpful guides on your subway map, there is no escaping the presence of Japan’s very helpful characters.

MOMO Festival Mascot

Artist Kenjiro Sano explains his concept for the festival logo

"When I designed the logo, I wanted to incorporate the themes of tradition, diversity, and innovation—three key aspects of Japanese culture. I started with our country's national flag, featuring the famous red rising sun. Within the shape of the sun I added many smaller, colorful circles to portray Japan's diverse nature. Everlasting change and constant growth, I believe, is the precise nature of Japanese culture."

Kenjiro Sano is a graduate of Tama Art University. He worked for the Hakuhodo advertising agency for nearly a decade before starting his own company, Mr. Design. He has designed projects for clients ranging from Sony and Nissan to Kirin Beer.