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Nani Iāpana – The First Annual Japan Hula ‘Oni Ē Festival

Kīhei de Silva

Uluhua wale. That’s me when it comes to hula. Quickly irritated. In my grumpy-old-man opinion, things that belong should stay where they belong. The seven-pulse beat of the pahu belongs to the hula pahu, not to ipu-accompanied dances. ‘Ulī‘ulī, pū‘ili, and kālā‘au belong in the hands of dancers, not in the hands of ho‘opa‘a. Words to standing dances belong in the mouths of ho‘opa‘a, not in the mouths of dancers. It’s the kāhea that belongs in the mouths of dancers—not ho‘opa‘a—and it belongs there in the form of a brief "call," not a line-long melody. "He Inoa no Kalākaua" belongs with those who’ve learned it from their teacher’s teachers; it’s not Mark’s, Lilo’s, or Walt’s. Adult dances like "Ke ‘Ala o ka Rose" belong to adult dancers, not to grinning, bobble-headed keiki. "Pua Lililehua" and "Pua ‘Āhihi" belong to Aunty Maiki Aiu-Lake’s people—or at least to those who have learned, from Maiki’s people, about her relationship with Uncle K. Hula itself—dare I say it?—belongs to those who have learned it legitimately, across the generations, not to its appropriators and fortune mongers. Things that belong should stay put.

So I often have a tough time at hula performances. I don’t like fence jumping and boundary blurring. I don’t like gravy in my salad, long rice in my squid lū‘au, or sugar in my poi. When distinctions break down, hele koke au a uluhua. I grind my teeth. I avoid eye contact. I grin and bear it.

So I expected an early onset of molar fatigue, downcast eyes, and grin cramps at the first Japan Hula ‘Oni Ē Festival held in Tokyo on January 6, 2007. It was run by U‘ilani Japan Productions in conjunction with Hālau Hula o Hōkūlani, and my wife and I were asked to sit on the four-judge panel. It was our first trip—a good way, we figured, to get a look at Japan, land of the big hula dollar. Pardon my cynicism. It, too, is symptomatic of my grumpy old manhood.

Much to our surprise, the 15-entry, Japanese-only venue proved less irritating than many of the home-based competitions that we’ve attended over the last 30 years. I expected more drill-team hula than I actually saw, more disconnect between words and motions, more choreography for effect, more obligatory spins and niniu, more over-expression, more canned mino‘aka, and more extravagance of costume and adornment. I came away, instead, with an overall impression of sincerity, humility, and restraint.

Perhaps the best example of what I hope is a new path for Japanese hula came in the form of Ai Sato, wahine soloist for Nā Mamo o Pōhai Kalima and the newly crowned Miss Japan Hula ‘Oni Ē. Simple song ("Ku‘u Lei Maile"), simple and accurate choreography, simple dress, simple lei. And a gentle, joyful manner of movement and expression (the old-timers call this "mannerism") that reflects admirably on her teacher Naoko Kalima’s subtle tastes. Kalima, I learn later, is married to former sumotori George Kalima (Yamato), the once number-12 maegeshira from Waimānalo who retired from the ring in late 90s after injuries, pneumonia, and a car crash stymied a career that might have rivaled that of his friend Chad Rowan’s. "Keoki really has an unshakeable Hawaiian presence: strong, warm, and humble. Maybe that’s why Naoko’s work seems to have more depth and less flash," my wife tells me. "Keoki," she concludes, "must be her foundation." I think so too.  There’s more belonging.

I was also impressed by the decision of Minako Raikai, sensei of Olilani Hula Studio, to require all of her dancers in all their five categories of competition to make their own lei—and to make them of Japanese ferns and flowers. Her girls’ group fact sheet, for example, explained that "We made our leis by ourselves with our mothers and Raikai Sensei’s help. Flowers from Japan. It took us quite a time to finish them, but we had so much fun!"

Robert Cazimero warned us several years ago at a Merrie Monarch meeting that the Japanese hula studios were importing all their lei—boxes and boxes of lehua, ‘a‘ali‘i, palapalai, and maile—from Hawai‘i, thus draining us of our own limited resources, thus putting kinolau in the hands of those for whom kinolau has no connection. "Don’t let this happen anymore," he admonished the assembled kumu hula. "If you teach in Japan, teach them to make their own lei of their own materials. If you judge in Japan, score them high for putting these skills to use."    

Robert’s advice, it seems, is taking effect. Not only did the Olilani dancers wear home-grown, home-made lei; they received four first-place dance awards and emerged as the overall winners of the festival. Nothing spawns more imitation in hula than competitive success; this often negative rule of thumb might, in this case, lead to positive change in Japanese hula circles. As our old-time kumu were fond of saying (after first saying, often several times in succession: "No, that’s not good enough; take it apart and start again"), you can’t begin to be an ‘ōlapa if you haven’t made your own lei. It’s a belonging thing—the kuleana of every dancer. Maybe the Kepanī will come, whatever the original incentive, to value lei-making in this light, as integral to hula, as more than a new ticket to victory.

So: there were unexpected highlights and promising developments at the Japan Hula ‘Oni Ē. Enough so, I think, to soften the edge of a fundamental question that I keep asking myself about Japanese hula. At what point will I feel okay about removing the modifier "Japanese"? At what point will I regard a Japanese hula performance, ‘Oni Ē or otherwise, as hula pure and simple, as hula me ka ‘ē ‘ole? I saw enough to soften the edge, but not enough to answer the question itself with an aia lā, a "there it is!"

My wife is pretty clear on matters of this sort; it derives from the kumu wisdom that her teachers—and the years—have imparted. She tells me: "You’ll know it when you see it. It’ll happen when the whole ball of wax is pono. It’s not going to happen if the teachers are workshop and video-tape ‘kumu.’ They need real and rigorous training—immersion. Like your brother Kauka when he studied pottery with Takita in Aizu Wakamatsu; like Keoki and our other mauna kanaka Hawai‘i in their sumo stables. And it’s not going to happen when their dancers don’t know the language and can’t connect, deep inside, with the guts and bones of the mele. And it’s never going to happen with a mele like ʻAloha Hawai‘i Ku‘u One Hānau.’ That song, no matter how perfectly executed, does not belong to the Japanese experience; Hawai‘i is not the Japanese homeland, not the residence of their beloved ancestors. Maybe it’ll have a better chance of happening with mele māka‘ika‘i; with travel songs that describe visits to places that they have actually visited and appreciated. That’s why I liked ‘Hanohano Kalihi’ and why I had a hard time with ‘No nā Hulu Kupuna.’"

My own moment of clarity occurred three days later on an admittedly gaijin pilgrimage to Kamakura where, after riding the JR East Railway from Tokyo, we caught a small bus to Kotokuin Temple, passed between the guardian kings, washed our hands—right then left, one ladle dip per hand—at the stone cistern, and stood in quiet awe on the stone steps beneath the bronze statue of the Amida Buddha, the Daibutsu. 

It wasn’t the season of the blooming sakura. The cold wind bit into us and some of our traveling companions were too caught up in shaka-sign photos to gain any real sense of kū kilakila i ka la‘i, but still the mana of the place reached out and touched me with a verse and chorus from "Nani Iapana (Beautiful Japan)," a mele that no one sings or dances and that I hadn’t thought about in the six years since Dennis Kamakahi wrote and recorded it.

Nani wale nō ka ‘āina Kamakura
Me nā hoaloha lokomaika‘i
Ho‘ohihi ka mana‘o i ke ki‘i Daibutsu 
Kū kilakila i ka la‘i

A he nani nō ‘o Iapana 
‘Āina kaulana 
‘O ke ahe lau makani ka hanu aloha 
Palupalu me he sakura 
Palupalu me he sakura

So beautiful is Kamakura’s land
With kind friends
The mind is entranced with the Daibutsu
Standing majestically in the calm.

So beautiful is Japan.
Famous land
The soft breeze is the breath of love
Soft like a cherry blossom.
Soft like a cherry blossom.

I can imagine someone like Ai Sato dancing this mele. I can imagine it belonging to her in a way that I could never question or doubt. I can imagine it serving as an inspiration for thoroughly trained Japanese hula people to compose and choreograph their own mele about things that belong to them. I think I’d still call this "Japanese Hula," but the modifier would then apply to an honorable genre of hula, not to something fraught with issues of appropriateness and ownership. Imagine: a place for everything good, and everything good in its place. The prospect softens my grumpy old heart—leaves it "palupalu me he sakura." It brings a tear, even, to my one good eye. 

Kamakura daibutsu 20170210 - suicasmo wikimedia commons

photo credit: Suicasmo, Wikimedia Commons

Nani wale nō ka ‘āina Kamakura / Me nā hoaloha lokomaika‘i / Ho‘ohihi ka mana‘o i ke ki‘i Daibutsu / Kū kilakila i ka la‘i. So beautiful is Kamakura’s land / With kind friends / The mind is entranced with the Daibutsu / Standing majestically in the calm. —Dennis Kamakahi, "Nani Iapana"

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