More than three centuries of tradition rest on Mao Takeshita’s narrow shoulders.
Mao is six and swaddled in a heavy kimono, her face covered in the thick white greasepaint of a Kabuki actor. Before her, an audience of hundreds sits on tatami mats. She steps forward, towards the footlights, and performs a dance, then introduces herself in the droning style of an ancient soliloquy.
Her appearance is an initiation of sorts and Mao does it alone. When the new academic year begins, she will be the sole first-grader at her school in Damine, a village in mountainous central Japan, where she will join a long but dwindling line of children who have performed the stylised dramas of Kabuki.
Every year, the students spend months preparing for their roles in an elaborate production staged by the villagers in honour of a Buddhist goddess. The intense commitment to the performance, for which Damine’s residents build a temporary theatre from bamboo, has helped keep the primary school alive even as many others across rural Japan have closed for lack of children.
As Damine contends with the same forces decimating other Japanese villages – an ageing population and an exodus to cities – this ritual stretching back a dozen generations may one day disappear. But for now, its magical quality endures.
The atonal chanting of the chorus, combined with the whine of the banjo-like samisen, transports the audience, bundled against the cold in the darkened theatre, to a Japan far removed from the bustling streets of modern Tokyo or Osaka.
At the heart of the performance, held each February, are the children. Energised as they put on their make-up backstage, they dash across the hanamichi, a narrow secondary stage where the lead actors make their dramatic appearances, then stomp their feet and brandish their swords. The crowd roars its approval, throwing sachets filled with coins at the stage, where they land in a metallic patter.
This year, there were 11 young performers. But after Mao enters first grade, some classes that follow at Damine Elementary will have no students at all.
More than 15 years ago, not long after I finished college, I taught English to Damine’s students one day a week as part of a Japanese government programme that brings young people from abroad to work at schools and government offices around the country.
During the cold winter months in the mountains, I studied the basics of Kabuki with the children, appearing twice on the stage in the theatre erected next to the local temple to Kannon, the goddess of mercy.
I played minor roles: a samurai’s loyal retainer and a bumbling innkeeper. I stumbled through the archaic Japanese dialogue alongside adults who had played their roles since childhood and delivered their lines with the verve and confidence of professionals. They know their parts so well, they claim, that they can perform them without rehearsing.
For the students, the months of preparation take place inside the school, an old-fashioned wooden building with three classrooms, a library and a small auditorium where they gather for music practice and lunch.
Pictures that line the long central hallway show more than 100 years of graduating classes. It is a story of decline, beginning with stern black-and-white photos of groups of children clad in kimonos and ending in colour snapshots of one or two children in stiff western attire, outnumbered by their teachers.
Damine’s festival is, in some respects, a living fossil. It is one of the few performances still held outdoors in a temporary pavilion built for the occasion. Its origins trace back more than 370 years, to a time when Japan was ruled by a shogunate that strictly controlled daily life.
Kabuki festivals are a tradition in the surrounding region, Chubu – whose name, which translates as “central part”, is geographically literal but also historically resonant. The warlords who contended to unify the country in the late 16th century called the region home.
Residents in Damine say their festival began with a miracle. One summer, the story goes, a group of men went into the shogun’s woods and stole some timber to rebuild a local temple, a capital offence.
After the feudal government sent an official to investigate, villagers prayed for Kannon to save them, pledging that as long as even three households remained in Damine, they would hold a festival in her honour each year.
A freak blizzard stopped the official from entering the village, according to lore, and there has been a performance every year since, even during the Second World War.
The task of teaching the children Kabuki now falls to Suzume Ichikawa, 82, who travels the festival circuit with a small group of old theatre hands, coaching young actors through their performances.
As a teenager, Ichikawa joined a troupe of young women who performed around the country, a sort of prototypical version of the girl groups that rule Japan’s modern pop scene.
Decades later, she cuts a graceful figure as she runs students through their lines and demonstrates the emphatic movements and striking poses that have become shorthand for Japan’s most famous traditional theatre.
Ichikawa believes Damine’s Kabuki festival is the oldest of its kind in the region. But it is not clear how much longer it can last: not only the children but their teachers too are disappearing.
Once Ichikawa is gone, she does not know who will take her place. No one is willing to make a full-time commitment to Kabuki any more, she says. The children, if there are any, will “probably have to learn by watching a video”, she says glumly as she waits for the adults to begin their rehearsal.