Saturday, July 15, 2017

Japan Cuts ’17: The Ondekoza

Taiko drumming isn’t just music, it is also spectacle. If you doubt it, check out Yako Miyamoto and her taiko drumming dance troupe, COBU (really, you should). They fused taiko with tap, other modern dance forms, and martial arts, creating a dazzling synthesis. They were able to reinterpret those traditional forms because of musicians like the Ondekoza ensemble, who came together to keep taiko alive and vital in 1969. Yakuza auteur Tai Kato documents the training and performances of a fresh batch of recruits in the criminally under-released and under-screened documentary The Ondekoza (trailer here), which looks terrific in the new 4K restoration that premieres in America during the 2017 Japan Cuts Festival of New Japanese Film in New York.

The Ondekoza (or Za Ondekoza) live and train communally, much like military personnel. In fact, when Kato follows the newbies as they take their daily jog around Sado island, you almost expect to hear them chant: “I don’t know but I’ve been told, taiko drumming makes you bold.” We get some sense of the young performers’ personalities, especially when they start to make their costumes. However, the real guts of the film are several stunningly filmed performances.

Frankly, Ondekoza compares quite closely to the eternally gorgeous Calle 54, especially Keiji Maruyama’s absolutely stunning cinematography. This is truly bravura, auterist filmmaking, featuring lush backdrops, artful visual composition, and incredibly dramatic but assured jump cuts.

It is not just taiko either. Ondekoza was founded to preserve and revitalize traditional Japanese music, such as the climatic solo shamisen performance, which ranks up the with Hoichi the Earless in Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan as one of the most cinematic shamisen performances ever. Although not quite as innovative as Miyamoto and COBU, Ondekoza also perform in more modern contexts, with groups like the Downtown Boogie Woogie Band, who were more 1970s funk than Meade Lux Lewis barrel house. Yet, it is when Ondekoza reconnect with tradition that they sound their best, such the starkly powerful human bunraku number.

It is depressing Ondekoza was virtually unseen during Kato’s lifetime, because it is such a conspicuous masterwork. Seriously, what more do you need? At least Shochiku has done right by Kato on his centennial (1916-1985), because the restoration is first-class all the way. Very highly recommended, The Ondekoza screens tomorrow (7/16) at the Japan Society, as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.