It took me 2500 yen and two-and-a-half hours by train (one-way) to arrive in Hitachitaga to see 90 minutes of street shows at their annual street festival. My business was actually to meet with Christian, the artistic director of Cirque Francais, one of our main shows at the First International New Circus Festival of Taiwan. Before that, however, I was able to see their show, a compact, efficient, and wild little street ditty with three performers and a lot of bare flesh (mostly Christian’s).
The show itself was 100% French street-show, and I felt some continental nostalgia. Raw, spontaneous, and in-your-face, it was a welcome change from the mediocre street shows that pop up at Japan’s numerous tourist-traps like mildew in a shower. Standard Japanese street fare is the victim of generations of inbreeding. Each one reads like a dictionary of jokes that the performer has seen somewhere else, written down in a little notebook, and regurgitated out onto a public that really doesn’t know the difference. In these shows, you would never see a thong-clad, graying, long-haired, man of sumo-wrestler girth held up on a slack-wire by six members of the audience while juggling torches and spitting fire as morbid clown-cheerleaders look on.
Cirque Francais, however, had more than enough of that to go around.
Japanese street artists just don’t have the experience to know when they are doing something that sucks. Any performer worth his hat-full of change knows that an audience is a poor judge of quality; make their kids smile, and they feel that they have gotten their dollar’s worth. It is a different breed of performer that actually wants to hone their craft, to transform a five-meter square of sidewalk with spectacle and art.
It is a brutal business at its best, full of politics and oneupmanship. Second-tier artists at European festivals and street-performing hubs (Amsterdam, Paris, London, Barcelona) find that the environment is competitive and fractious. Fill a chalk circle with twenty minutes of a quality show, however, and you will garner the respect and friendship of performers and audiences alike.
The key point is that a great show is inimitable. It is not infantile jokes or standard issue physical tricks that make a show great, it is the performers themselves with their personality and generosity that are really earning their living out there. This is where Japanese street performers (national and foreign) fail miserably. They recycle their rubber-thumb jokes and borrow from some secret canon of balloon-animal humor and sell their juggling 101 tricks shamelessly and they make an OK profit for a days worth of work, but like so many other things in modern Japanese culture, they are just putting on the Western costume of something rather than redefining it for themselves.
I feel like there is no forum for grass-roots artistic innovation in Japan.
Christian would probably disagree with me, however. I think that Japan is one of his favorite places to perform, and I can see why. His company is importing a valuable artistic commodity that is utterly lacking in Japanese performances: chaos and rebellion. The Japanese people who are drawn to Cirque Francais’ unmistakably European style are those Japanese artists who are looking for something more real. It is a shame that the best performing artists in Japan must look outside their own county to find it.