Poisonous Centepedes and Magic Rivers

Kashira is swinging his arms around on stage to warm up and says: “So, Anna, today, lets practise doing the introductory speech to the show.” “Okay.” I say, light-heartedly, but then U-san warns me that that usually means he will suddenly tell me to get on stage and do it, without prior warning. So panic stricken, I look for Kashira who has disappeared. Working with professional ninjas can be a challenge. I run to the tent and, luckily, find him there. I tell him I can’t do the speech yet but will learn it for next week. He chuckles. “Its ok if you remember it come summer.” “No,” I say, “If you tell me to remember it, I will remember it for next week.”

Again, I get to wear my bright blue ninja suit. Kashira gives me a new hachimaki to go with it. The same blue, with white wax patterns randomly pervading the cloth.

Being the gaijin ninja, I get to take care of all the foreign visitors. Today, there are a lot of them. First, an Indian looking young Canadian couple. I chat to them. They have found themselves some standing up spots with a good view near the back entrance that becomes the exit after the show, and are shooting away with their cameras as the show starts. We chat a little bit before things get serious with Kashira’s katana routine. They are just in Japan for a little holiday because the country seemed exotic and interesting to them. I interpret what is being said on stage, and they say “Oh!” and “Aw!” and “Ah!” and take more pictures. What a response. And I’m just a whispering interpreter. In the next show, we have three more Canadians. This time Chinese-Canadians from Toronto, a pleasant couple with their clever-looking college age son. They take a picture with me and ask for my e-mail, so they can send it to me.

When I accompany Tomonosuke to the front entrance to let in the visitors and lighten their burden by 200 Yen each, he tells me that he and his mother have been looking for cool English phrases they can entertain the audience with. “I say Iga, you say Nin!” Is one of them, “Watch out! Hard contents!” is another. “Why do foreigners find that so funny?” he asks me. But then he walks away before I can answer the question, to announce the show again and see whether any more visitors will file in from the ninja museum. Then he comes back halfway, keeping his back turned towards me. He concentrates, then practises a pretty looking three-plus-one-is-four gesture with his fingers coming up and going back down and his hands sliding together and apart again. It is one of his intro-speech jokes. “When I tell you to give me a cheer, say nin!” he says. “Give me a cheer!” “Nin!” They say. Tomonosuke repeats the procedure a couple times. “Nin!” they say, and “Nin!” again. Then he asks them “What is three plus one?” Which, in Japanese, is “Yon!” But they are all fixated on the “Nin!” and he has to tell them every time that three plus one is yon, not nin. So the ninja is practising his three plus four hand gestures. A real show biz pro. A word Kashira likes to use. Pro. Pro no sekai. The world of professionals. A tough world. Where everything needs to be practised every free minute. There is too much competition not to.

I am happy I can help with my own maths skills later on when Masanosuke, who is doing everything at the same time, as usual, silently and efficiently, without a single complaint, miscalculates at one point, telling somebody who wants to pay for 16 people that it costs 2,200 yen, while really it costs 3,200. So I correct him, and he smiles and takes the 3,200 Yen.

The next group of foreigners comes in. This is a rather large group of young people with mixed nationalities who are in Japan on a Japanese language scholarship. But they haven’t started learning, so this time I get given a mic and told to do a special welcome speech before the show and some interpreting in English, the little microphone clipped to the diagonal collar of my ninja kimono, the rest of it at the other end of the cable clipped onto my various belts. The mic makes noise in front of the speakers, and it is difficult to position myself outside the speakers’ range. I don’t have time to interpret most things that are said because the show advances to rapidly. It is all rather spontaneous, and there was no time beforehand to agree on how to proceed with the interpreting throughout the show. So I simply say something where I there is a large enough gap in the performance and it seems appropriate.

In the next show, there is an American couple with four sons between 6 and 12. I make a special announcement for them, too, and during the show, translate for the sons in the back row. All of them, without exception are real ninja enthusiasts and watch the show with big, round eyes ready to pop out when Masanosuke comes out with the ninja stars. “WOW!” they shout, and “That is SO COOL!” Still shouting in their feverish ninja excitement, they fire questions at me. “Wow, are those REAL ninja stars? Could he kill somebody with them?” “Is that a real sword? O my god, has he actually just cut his balls off with that ninja sword?” “Has he actually hurt him?” I try to keep them enthusiastic while making them pipe down a little bit. People are turning around to look at our excited little group. The big American parents also turn around from their third row seats. Mom with a finger at her mouth, cautions them to be quiet. There is no stopping them. But their loud enthusiasm does not do much harm. On the contrary, after the show, a Japanese woman smiles at us heartily and says “They really love ninjas, don’t they! They are SO CUTE!”

The four boys love ninjas indeed, and as I am their own personal link to the ninja world, they love me, too. They all try out the ninja stars and want to take a picture with me. I pose with them for a few pictures, teaching them how to do a proper “Nin!” with your hands, and their big parents shoot away with their big cameras. Then they thank me and wander off with their hyper little crew of four.

Another request to pose for a picture comes from a group of Japanese teenage boys. While they are queuing up to throw some ninja stars, I hear one of them voice concern about losing face in the impending ninja star throwing. “What if it doesn’t get stuck in the wall. That would be so embarrassing!” So I take it upon myself and try to calm them down. I tell them if they hold and throw them like this, they will be grand. I do my usual imitation of the ninjas’ star throwing posture that I see ten times a day, and although I have never really done any serious practice with this popular weapon myself, amazingly, my instructions usually help people. After all they don’t know I’m just an apprentice ninja doing shugyo. I know what I am, but to them I am a gaijin ninja in a bright blue ninja suit. “Pose with us!” they beg me after they have completed their star throwing without any major embarrassments, and I pose again, taking on low stances, hands in blocking and striking postures better for pictures than for any real fighting purposes, but this is business, and I am an apprentice show ninja. I need to find out what kind of “me” people like to see. That’s all that matters. There are many kinds, so I am still looking. The kids love me, too, especially the girls. Japanese girls need strong ideals to aspire to, as they do not have many in read life, sad mothers and housewives all around, quitting their jobs to be at home. I am happy to provide something to aspire to for the little girls, something strong, fun, and free. They watch me with big eyes filled with awe and whisper breathlessly, “Wow, a kunoichi!” I take special care when instructing the girls on how to throw things. It is more difficult for them. I know all about it. But they should learn earlier than me that anything is possible.

I am advancing my own throwing skills practising darts, using every opportunity in my kids’ classes to throw things, aim at targets. I am trying to engrain the throwing action into my muscles, eyes, and brain. At this point, I do not have much skill myself in this field, but everybody trusts me blindly. Seeingly. Sometimes, eyes make people blind to the truth, create illusions. I am a ninja illusion. Their trust in me is based on my ninja outfit, skilfully crafted by the multi-talented, respected, and revered S-san. She has never studied making ninja outfits. She just has a talent, U-san tells me when she helps me put on my ninja hakama. No doubt S-san has talent. Not only for making ninja costumes. She has so much talent, U-san tells me, when she was a ninja, she hid behind a black face mask so people wouldn’t recognise her as a woman. She was pure skill. Other kunoichi usually just exploit the fact that audiences love them simply for being women. I admire S-san’s skill and integrity in awe-struck silence. She provides a kunoichi ideal to aspire to. But I have a feeling Kashira wants to sell me as a kunoichi that looks like one, too. A ninja in short dresses. Whatever works. I will make an effort. If this opportunity stretches out into the future, and my capacities allow it, I will work, and sell.

The day is very busy and hot, but time flies, as I get to interact with lots of enthusiastic visitors. “Eigo ga jouzu desu ne,” (“Wow, your English is really good!”) jokes a tall American who has seen the same show as the Japanese language scholarship group. For people who have never tried their Japanese in Japan, this is a play on the phrase “Nihongo ga jouzu desu ne!” (“Wow, your Japanese is really good!”), which you usually get to hear upon uttering any one or two word statement in Japanese. Come to Japan and try it. “Konnichiwa!” will do. Or “sushi”. And to uphold the good image people have of your Japanese, you can then finish things off quickly and effortlessly with a hearty “Sayonara.”

The hot topic of the day during our little breaks are centipedes. There was one discovered near the ninja tent yesterday. Apparently they sting you and you have to go to hospital if they do you because they are so poisonous. So the centipedes are the real ninjas here, scaring even the ninjas. I learn the word for centipede. Mugade. It makes me remember the Jet Lee film in which he sees a chicken eat a worm, and adapts the chicken’s movements to be used in a spectacular fight against a giant human centipede that operates in a similar fashion to Chinese festival lions. Apparently here in Iga, too, somebody strong and brave managed to kill the centipede. Hero.

On our way back, U-san and I eat in the little restaurant attached to the place where she usually stops on our way back to buy big boxes of tomatoes for her mother, and other cheap fresh fruit and vegetables. U-san recommends oyakodon. Parent and child at their tastiest together, laden on top of a bowlful of sticky rice. Runny egg, and good, juicy chicken, soy flavoured, slightly sweet. Perfect!

The little combini-vegetable market-restaurant oasis along the motorway is right next to the river, and you can look down on it from the side of the parking lot. While U-san goes to the bathroom, I watch the river flow, a natural river, no concrete. A miracle in Japan, where all the rivers are embedded in concrete, stripped of their freedom and beauty. Not here. There is a small bamboo grove on the left. Here in Iga, you can imagine what Japan must have looked like when the ninjas were at work…green and wild, with trees and bamboo groves freely mingling their shadows and reflections with the glittering flow of crooked, wild streams. A world of the past. Especially good to retain, recreate, and reinforce now. May the beautiful shadow world of the ninjas be re-born doubly strong in its nostalgic splendour, combined with the comfort of high tech toilets and i-pods. I am hypnotised by the river. As I get lost in its waves and ripples, veins and arteries, it starts gurgling a song to me. The river carries the water into the ocean where the sea will take it further up to be clouds and rain back into the river. My phone rings me back into this world. I turn around and see U-san calling me from the other side of the parking lot. Why can’t she see me? Does this river hold some ninja magic? Has it temporarily turned me into a real shinobi? I take a deep breath and, breathing out, reappear in the parking lot. I walk across and join her in her little corsa for the ride back. Another week to prepare for the next ninja adventure.

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