06 July 2016

GAKI Biwa hōshi (GAKI琵琶法師, 2005)

In feudal Japan, biwa hōshi, “lute masters” or “lute priests”, were travelling performers who earned their living performing vocal literature with the accompaniment of biwa music.  The biwa is a Japanese short-necked, fretted lute traditionally used in narrative storytelling.   Biwa hōshi were often blind and wore robes and had shaved heads in a similar style to that of Buddhist monks.  The style of their musical performance is known as heikyoku (平曲 / Heike music) as the biwa hōshi are believed to have been the first performers of the Japanese epic story The Tale of the Heike (平家物語 / Heike Monogatari, c. 1180-1185). 

Reiko Yokosuka’s 2005 ink brush (sumi-e) animation GAKI Biwa hōshi (GAKI琵琶法師) depicts the performance of such a biwa hōshi.  However, this is no historical figure but a gaki – a type of ghost or yūrei (幽霊) common in Japanese and East Asian folklore.  Not only is this clear from the title of the film, but Yokosuka’s depiction of the gaki as a bent, elderly figure with a bloated stomach resembles very closely the depiction of of gaki in traditional art (see examples).  According to Japanese Buddhist legends, gaki (hungry ghosts) are the spirits of jealous or greedy people who have been cursed with insatiable hunger for something (often something disgusting) as a punishment for their mortal vices. 

In the Oxford University Press’s Handbook of Japanese Mythology (2008), Michael Ashkenazi describes a myth of such a lute-playing gaki that appears after the defeat of the Taira Clan at Dan-no-Ura (p. 156-157).  I suspect that such a myth must have inspired Yokosuka’s animation.

That being said; however, Yokosuka does not employ a contemporary biwa musician to accompany her film.  Instead, she modernizes the gaki biwa hōshi, transforming his traditional instrument into an electric biwa.  He plugs his instrument into an electricity source and the old fashioned setting of a traditional Japanese house transforms into a modern landscape of electricity poles.  Although the poles are modern, they are painted with in the sumi-e brush painting style used in the depiction of bamboo in traditional art.  To the accompaniment of electronic music by Kenji Konishi (小西健司, b. 1955), also known as Ironbeat, the brush strokes become performers in the animation.

The pika pika of electricity comes alive as a dancing figure on the electricity wire.  We return to the lonely figure of the gaki biwa hōshi for a moment as the sound of wind transforms the brushstrokes of sumi-e paint into a beautiful abstract animation.  The brushstrokes swirl like cloth around a spinning top, they fill the screen with waves as the music crescendos again until we finally return to the gaki musician, worn out by his efforts.  As he sits once again, two little figures like the one dancing on the electricity line bring the hungry ghost some refreshment in the form of a drink and a snack.  "Sigh.  .   ."  a wonderful blend of traditional art and mythology with contemporary art and music. 

You can get a glimpse of the animation in the trailer here.  This animated short screened as part of A Wild Patience – Indie Animated Shorts by Women at Nippon Connection 2016.

Artist: Reiko Yokosuka (横須賀令子)

2016 Cathy Munroe Hotes