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Kagura (神楽, "god-entertainment") is a type of Shinto ritual ceremonial dance. The term is a contraction of the phrase kami no kura ("seat of god"), indicating the presence of gods (kami) in the practice.
One major function of kagura is chinkon (purifying and shaking the spirit), involving a procession-trance process. Usually a female shaman will perform the dance and obtain the oracle from the god—in the setting, the dancer herself turns into god during the performance. Once strictly a ceremonial art derived from kamigakari (神懸, "oracular divinification"), kagura has evolved in many directions over the span of more than a millennium. Today, it is very much a living tradition, with rituals tied to the rhythms of the agricultural calendar, thriving primarily in parts of Shimane Prefecture, and urban centers such as Hiroshima.
There are two major types of kagura: mai and odori. Mai consists of slow circular movement, stressing quiet and elegance, while odori consists of quick leaping and jumping, stressing activation and energy. The two types can be understood as two phases of kagura: mai is a preparation process for trance and odori is the unconscious trance stage.
During mai, the female shaman, surrounded by a group of priests, holds a gohei (a ceremonial wand used to cleanse or purify) as well as sound-producing instruments and engages with circling movement to summon deities. Once the female shaman enters a possessed state, she switches into the spontaneous leaping movements of odori.
The epics Kojiki and Nihon Shoki describe a folktale origin for the dances. In these texts, there is a famous legendary tale about the sun goddess Amaterasu, who retreated into a cave, bringing darkness and cold to the world. Ame-no-Uzume, goddess of the dawn and of revelry, led the other gods in a wild dance, and persuaded Amaterasu to emerge to see what the ruckus was all about. Kagura is one of a number of rituals and arts said to derive from this event.
Originally called kamukura/kamikura (神座), kagura began as sacred dances performed at the Imperial court by shrine maidens (miko) who were supposedly descendants of Ame-no-Uzume. During the performance, the shrine maidens usually utilize a channeling device for god such as masks and spears to imitate the trance. With the kagura music that has the power to summon the gods, the miko start to dance to transform themselves into the representation of the gods and receive messages as well as blessings from the deities. In 1871, Iwami Shinto offices claimed that theatrical kagura performed by priests in the west of Japan demeaned their dignity and therefore banned the performance. Owning to the support of civilian performing groups at that time, the performance pieces were still preserved.
Over time, however, these mikagura (御神楽) performed within the sacred and private precincts of the Imperial courts, inspired popular ritual dances, called satokagura (里神楽), which, being popular forms, practiced in villages all around the country, were adapted into various other folk traditions and developed into a number of different forms. Among these are miko kagura, shishi kagura, and Ise-style and Izumo-style kagura dances. Many more variations have developed over the centuries, including some which are fairly new, and most of which have become highly secularized folk traditions.
Kagura, in particular those forms that involve storytelling or reenactment of fables, is also one of the primary influences on the Noh theatre.
Kagura dance in 1914
Gohei – a ceremonial wand used to cleanse or purify
Mask from contemporary kagura performance
Mikagura (御神楽) is a ritual dance performed at the imperial court and at important Shinto shrines: Kamo-jinja and Iwashimizu Hachiman-gū. It consists of welcoming, entertaining and greeting the deities with humorous or poetic syllabic songs. Today it is sometimes considered as a sub-genre of gagaku, of which it is one of the influences. It predated Chinese inspiration, and has indigenous elements as well as influences from other elements such as kangen (管弦), bugaku (舞楽) and saibara (催馬楽), which are forms of gagaku, More simply, mikagura can be considered dances accompanied by gagaku music.
The kagura-uta is the sacred vocal repertoire of 26 songs (Niwabi, Achime, Sakaki, Karakami, Hayakarakami, Komomakura, Sazanami, Senzai, Hayauta, Hoshi, Asakura, Sonokoma, etc.) traditionally performed by a male choir for several days, but reduced today to 12 chants performed in six hours. Instruments used include the yokobue (笛) and/or the hichiriki, with the possible addition of a yamatogoto and shakubyoshi claves.
There are several mikagura dances, including:
The formal Imperial ritual dances are performed in a number of sacred places and on a number of special occasions. At the Imperial Sanctuary, where the Yata no kagami is kept, they are performed as part of gagaku court music. Mikagura are also performed at the Imperial harvest festival and at major shrines such as Ise, Kamo, and Iwashimizu Hachiman-gū. Since around the year 1000, these events have taken place every year.
According to the Board of Ceremonies of the Imperial Household Agency, mikagura still take place every December in the Imperial Sanctuary and at the Imperial harvest festival ceremonies.
Satokagura, or "normal kagura", is a wide umbrella term containing a great diversity of folk dances derived from the Imperial ritual dances (mikagura), and incorporated with other folk traditions. It is the partial origin of both Noh and kyōgen. A number of traditions of folk kagura exist:
Around the time of the beginning of the Tokugawa shogunate (1603–1868), performances derived from this emerged in Edo as a major form of entertainment. In connection with the celebrations surrounding the beginning of the shogunate, lion dances, acrobatics, juggling, and a great variety of other entertainments were performed on stages across the city, all nominally under the auspices of daikagura. Over the course of the period, these came to be more closely associated with rakugo storytelling and other forms of popular entertainment. Daikagura continues to be performed to this day and include many elements of street entertainment.