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  • Possessed by Love, Thwarted by the Bell: An Overview of Kumi Odori
  • Kathy Foley (bio) and Nobuko Miyama Ochner (bio)

Kumi odori is an aristocratic dance-drama developed in 1719 by Tamagusuku Chōkun as part of Okinawan court performance for the ritual investiture of the monarch. Shūshin Kani’iri (Possessed by Love, Thwarted by the Bell) was written for this court presentation and has remained one of the most frequently performed works. This essay gives an introduction to kumi odori based on the practice of Kin Ryōshō, an important twentieth-century master of the form. A translation of Possessed by Love, Thwarted by the Bell, with stage directions reflecting Kin Sensei’s choreography, follows this essay.1 The essay and translation were originally published in Asian Theatre Journal, 22:1 (spring 2005) in a slightly different format.

Kumi Odori’s Historical Context and Performance Practice 2

Okinawan (or Ryūkyūan) kumi odori (“combination dance”),3 a form that combines dance, dialogue, music, and song in creating its play’s dramatic effect, had its debut in 1719 at a banquet in the Okinawan capital city of Shuri, for the purpose of entertaining the Chinese envoys to the Okinawan kingdom. Its period of growth and development ended with the dissolution of the kingdom by the Japanese government in 1879. A few artists who had access to this tradition through their aristocratic birth preserved it. There was a revival of interest in this dance-drama form in the mid-twentieth century, culminating in its designation by the Japanese government in 1972 as an “important intangible cultural asset” (Tōma 1986: 266). This valuation now places kumi odori in the same category as the traditional Japanese performing arts, such as ancient court music (gagaku), puppet theatre (bunraku), , kabuki, and gidayū chanting. In 2004 the National Theatre Okinawa in Urasoe city near Naha opened, marking another step in official recognition of this important cultural genre (Thornbury 1999: 230–247). However, despite this recognition, the social base that gave birth to kumi odori is gone and the revival is still largely a case of cultural conservation. The kumi odori repertoire has not grown significantly since the demise of the kingdom, and practitioners focus on replicating past masters rather than developing new performance practices. [End Page 83]

Between 1719 and 1879, however, the form flourished in the court, reflecting the taste and refinement of the aristocrats who were the audience, actors, and authors of the genre. One can turn to the Okinawan tradition of religious dances (kami ashibi) and chants (umui), night meetings that allowed the young people of the village to sing, dance, and socialize (mō ashibi), or to the chondarā, a slow religious dance related to the nembutsu odori of Japan, for distant antecedents of the form (Origuchi 1929: 1–23; Ōura 1974: 11–19).

But for more germane information, one must consider the situation of the court at Shuri, with its refined aristocrats, to appreciate how they utilized music and dance while playing the delicate political game of balancing their islands’ tenuous economy by keeping good relations with their more powerful neighbors, China and Japan (Kerr 1975 [1958]). To ensure itself a position in Chinese trade, Okinawa was more than willing to acknowledge the suzerainty of China. The culture flow that resulted stimulated the development of art and ethics in Okinawa. The sanshin (Jpn.: shamisen; a three-stringed plucked instrument) came from China in the fourteenth century and was adopted as the major musical instrument, the Chinese classics became required readings for the educated man, and Confucian ethics affected the moral code. The way the hero of Shūshin Kani’iri flees a woman and seeks protection of a monk reminds us of the young scholar of the Chinese white snake legend who seeks asylum in a Buddhist monastery, as well as Japanese stories, discussed below, that may be related to this Chinese legend. Chinese models impressed the authors of kumi odori performance.

King Satto of Chūzan in central Okinawa inaugurated the tribute system with China in 1372, during the Ming dynasty in China. The system continued under his successors, who united the entire island under their rule...


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