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SHITARA, Japan — Extra than three generations of custom rest on Mao Takeshita’s narrow shoulders.

Mao is 6 several years old and swaddled in a significant kimono, her encounter covered in the thick white greasepaint of a Kabuki actor. Right before her, an audience of hundreds sits on tatami mats. She actions ahead, towards the footlights, and performs a dance, then introduces herself in the droning model of an historic soliloquy.

Her overall look is an initiation of sorts, and Mao does it by itself. When the new tutorial 12 months starts, she will be the sole 1st grader at her faculty in Damine, a village in mountainous central Japan, in which she will join a extensive but dwindling line of youngsters who have performed the stylized dramas of Kabuki.

Each individual yr, the pupils devote months preparing for their roles in an elaborate production staged by the villagers in honor of a Buddhist goddess. The powerful commitment to the effectiveness, for which Damine’s citizens establish a momentary theater from bamboo, has served maintain the elementary university alive even as numerous others throughout rural Japan have shut for absence of young children.

As Damine contends with the same forces decimating other Japanese villages — an ageing population and an exodus to metropolitan areas — this ritual stretching back a dozen generations may just one working day disappear. But for now, its magical high-quality endures.

The atonal chanting of the refrain, combined with the whine of the banjo-like samisen, transports the viewers, bundled in opposition to the chilly in the darkened theater, to a Japan far removed from the bustling streets of contemporary Tokyo or Osaka.

At the heart of the functionality, held every February, are the young children. Energized as they place on their makeup backstage, they dash across the hanamichi, a slim secondary phase where the direct actors make their dramatic appearances, then stomp their feet and brandish their swords. The crowd roars its approval, throwing sachets filled with coins at the stage, in which they land in a metallic patter.

This year, there have been 11 young performers. But right after Mao enters very first grade, some courses that adhere to at Damine Elementary will have no students at all.

Much more than 15 several years back, not lengthy after I concluded school, I taught English to Damine’s pupils just one working day a week as part of a Japanese governing administration software that provides younger people from abroad to function at schools and governing administration workplaces all around the nation.

Through the cold wintertime months in the mountains, I analyzed the fundamentals of Kabuki with the young children, showing twice on the phase in the theater erected upcoming to the regional temple to Kannon, the goddess of mercy.

I played minimal roles: a samurai’s loyal retainer and a bumbling innkeeper. I stumbled by the archaic Japanese dialogue together with grown ups who experienced performed their roles due to the fact childhood and shipped their lines with the verve and assurance of gurus. They know their pieces so properly, they assert, that they can accomplish them with no rehearsing.

For the college students, the months of preparation acquire position within the faculty, an old-fashioned wood creating with 3 school rooms, a library and a small auditorium the place they collect for tunes observe and lunch.

Pictures that line the extensive central hallway present a lot more than 100 a long time of graduating classes. It is a story of decline, starting with stern black-and-white images of teams of small children clad in kimonos and ending in color snapshots of a single or two children in rigid Western attire, outnumbered by their academics.

Damine’s festival is, in some respects, a living fossil. It’s one of the number of performances nevertheless held outdoor in a temporary pavilion created for the situation. Its origins trace back again additional than 370 years, to a time when Japan was ruled by a shogunate that strictly managed day by day lifetime.

Kabuki festivals are a tradition in the bordering region, Chubu — whose identify, which translates as “central aspect,” is geographically literal but also traditionally resonant. The warlords who contended to unify the state in the late 16th century termed the region house.

Inhabitants in Damine say their competition commenced with a wonder. A person summer, the story goes, a group of males went into the shogun’s woods and stole some timber to rebuild a regional temple, a money offense.

Soon after the feudal governing administration despatched an formal to examine, villagers prayed for Kannon to conserve them, pledging that as extensive as even a few homes remained in Damine, they would maintain a festival in her honor just about every year.

A freak blizzard stopped the formal from moving into the village, according to lore, and there has been a overall performance each calendar year because, even through Entire world War II.

The task of training the little ones Kabuki now falls to Suzume Ichikawa, 82, who travels the festival circuit with a compact team of previous theater palms, coaching younger actors as a result of their performances.

As a teen, Ms. Ichikawa joined a troupe of youthful girls who carried out all over the country, a kind of prototypical version of the girl groups that rule Japan’s modern-day pop scene.

A long time later, she cuts a graceful determine as she operates learners as a result of their lines and demonstrates the emphatic movements and hanging poses that have turn into shorthand for Japan’s most popular common theater.

Ms. Ichikawa believes Damine’s Kabuki competition is the oldest of its type in the area. But it is not crystal clear how a lot extended it can very last: Not only the little ones, but their lecturers, way too, are disappearing.

When Ms. Ichikawa is long gone, she doesn’t know who will get her spot. No one particular is inclined to make a total-time motivation to Kabuki any extra, she mentioned. The small children, if there are any, will “probably have to study by looking at a video clip,” she said glumly as she waited for the adults to commence their rehearsal.

Whilst the competition has remained largely the exact same by the yrs, the village, and the township to which it belongs, Shitara, have improved in techniques major and small.

In the time because I lived there, Shitara has been diminished. Many of the old-fashioned Japanese-model inns that lined the major street have gone out of business enterprise.

More than a meal of Japanese beef with the Couch Potatoes, an English discussion club I utilised to teach, one of the members, Taeko Goto, reminisced about the Shitara of her youth, when the city had two motion picture theaters. A teach line ran along the river and down through the mountains, where loggers harvested the raw materials used to rebuild postwar Japan.

The railroad shut down in the 1960s. Now there is just a bus that slowly wends its way to the metropolis of Shinshiro, about an hour absent. On most days, the bus is practically empty.

Shitara also displays confounding indicators of development, nevertheless: The nationwide governing administration has pumped tax pounds into the township as aspect of a quixotic endeavor at rural renewal.

As in quite a few small towns and villages in Japan, large, modern-day and artfully developed community structures sit beside old wood houses and rusty, age-stained retailers built of concrete and corrugated metal.

The musty town corridor where by I labored for two several years has been demolished. A new a single, all wooden and glass, has appeared in the centre of town. Where winding, slim roadways as soon as hardly authorized just one car to move, now wide thoroughfares are getting made to lower through the mountains.

I worked in the town’s planning section, and my co-staff expended their days dreaming up strategies for attracting young people to the village.

At the time, Damine was aggressively wooing inhabitants from close by metropolitan areas, creating roomy new residences and promoting them at eye-catching costs to individuals seeking for fresh new air and a change of surroundings.

1 of them was Takeko Takeshita — no relation to Mao — who moved to the village in her 30s, searching for a much more nurturing setting for her twin girls, who experienced struggled in major-town educational institutions.

“The twins just did so substantially improved in this article,” claimed Ms. Takeshita, who performs for a nearby collective that tends to make tea harvested from the terraced hills all around the elementary university.

But of the 13 children I taught in Damine, only two keep on being. Improved positions are commonly available a reasonably small transfer absent, at the headquarters of Toyota and in cities like Nagoya in the country’s industrial heartland.

Ms. Takeshita’s own daughters have returned to the cities they remaining as kids. 1 is a nurse and 1 a police officer.

The town’s only real development business is elder care. There are 70 new work opportunities at the nursing households that have sprung up on its outskirts, mentioned Masahiro Toyama, who after labored in my section in the city corridor and is now head of the town’s training department.

This 12 months, the township ideas to get started consulting with villagers about Damine Elementary’s long run. It is thinking about merging the university with a person of the some others in a nearby valley.

“It’s a hard dilemma,” Mr. Toyama claimed. “Closing the school would be like tearing out the village’s soul.”

Makiko Inoue contributed reporting.

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