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Taiko beats back grief

'Insatiable' gives voice to Japan's tsunami victims, recovery


by: COURTESY OF PORTLAND TAIKO - 'Insatiable' by Portland Taiko will express through drumming and dancing the seemingly never-ending recovery in Japan after its 2011 tsunami and earthquake, a new work by artistic director Michelle Fujii.Houses overturned or ruined and destined for demolition. Properties barren, leveled. Schools and temporary “shacks” housing the homeless.

Garbage piled — neatly — along the streets, along with wrecked automobiles stacked on top of each other.

And, a populace walking around still stunned, still reeling, but fighting back from what hit them in March 2011.

Michelle Fujii saw it all, touring the Miyagi Prefecture in Japan’s north, one of the areas hit hard by the tsunami that wreaked havoc and swept carnage into the ocean. Although fourth-generation Japanese-American, her family was hit hard — the people of her ancestor’s home, her artistic brethren, her husband’s country — and Fujii was feeling it.

“It was overwhelming,” she says. “I was saddened. You can’t even get away from seeing it. You have to face (the damage) every single day.”

Fujii returned to Portland in January, and started working on a way to contribute. From her work springs “Insatiable,” a 60-minute performance by drumming-and-folk dancing group extraordinaire Portland Taiko, for which Fujii serves as artistic director.

All new compositions, “Insatiable” delves into the vicious cycle and repetition of tsunami and earthquake recovery and an intense push forward to the future.

“Insatiable” takes place 8 p.m. Friday, March 29, and 2 and 8 p.m Saturday, March 30, at Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall, 1620 S.W. Park Ave. (tickets $16 to $30, portlandtaiko.org).

Portland Taiko put on a relief performance shortly after the tsunami and earthquake devastated Japan, killing thousands. This performance, benefiting the Oregon Tomodachi Recovery Fund, comes from Fujii’s firsthand experience touring Japan, along with husband Toru Watanabe, also a Portland Taiko performer. She had returned to Japan shortly after the storm, then returned last December after Watanabe had read about the Miyagi Prefecture’s struggle to try to return to normalcy.

“They were basically saying, ‘We need people to come here and value us, come to our hotels, eat our food and not be afraid to come here, and not just throw us money and donations,’ ” she says. “They wanted to rebuild their town (in Onagawa). That story struck a chord.”

Although born and raised in San Jose, Calif., Fujii has felt a connection to Japan, visiting the country dozens of times since graduating from UCLA in the mid-1990s, and meeting her husband there — his family lives in the southern Yamaguchi Prefecture. She lived in Japan for awhile, studying on a government grant with the Warabiza club, with which she has developed a strong relationship.

“It’s a different embracing of my identity,” says Fujii, Portland Taiko’s artistic director for seven years, following a long stint with the noted San Jose Taiko. “Because I’m not Japanese, and don’t speak fluently, I’m not literate in the language. But, if I walk around, not speaking or whatever, it’s homogenous ... I look like everyone, I blend in. It’s this weird placement, and that’s what really informs my life.”

Both sets of Fujii’s great grandparents moved to California about 100 years ago, and the family lived through internment of Japanese during World War II.

Her father, who worked for IBM, had never visited Japan, her mother, a former teacher, went only once.

‘We have a voice

Fujii grew up in the Japanese-American community, and, post-college, had a yearning to learn more about Japan. She became involved with San Jose Taiko near the end of her high school years, about 20 years ago — she wrote a paper about taiko and “the first time I hit the drum, something happened, it moved me,” she says — and continued her drum playing and dancing at UCLA. Once done with college, she had an opportunity to visit Japan with San Jose Taiko, which collaborated with Warabiza and Kodo, another famous taiko group.

So, through taiko, Fujii has learned much about Japan, where drums and dance go back ages, but the art of taiko sprung into popularity in the 1960s.

“It is popular but still seen as a modern art form,” she says.

Japanese-Americans took to the music and taiko groups formed in Seattle, Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Jose in the late 1960s — with Portland joining in later, 1994.

Fujii says taiko helped Japanese-Americans find their voice and establish identity in the Civil Rights era.

“My goodness, here’s this big drum, it’s loud and you can be proud,” she says. “It was the opposite of the stereotypical box of what Asians are — quiet, meek and follow directions. It was sort of like, ‘No, we’re here, we have a voice.’ That catalyst, the historical period of time, as well as this art form being creative, has been a motivating factor as to why taiko has spread in North America.”

Motivating factor

Fujii has composed scores of pieces for Portland Taiko, but “Insatiable” comes from the heart after her visit to Japan.

“Some of the words that kept coming up — it’s coming back, it’s repeating, it’s never-ending,” she says, of the attitudes after the tsunami and earthquake. “How do I then think about that musically and movement-wise? This piece has a lot of repetition, things coming back. ... I have this breadth of work, but the breadth of work doesn’t have to be ‘done.’ The breadth of work can come back to so many different things.

“When I was first thinking about the word ‘Insatiable,’ it’s a place where I felt powerless, consumed, overwhelmed,” she adds. “Where it became provocative. This program became an acceptance piece of that cycle. In some ways, now I’m feeling there’s a motivating factor to it, instead of wallowing in despair. There is hope. ‘Insatiable’ doesn’t have to be the drowning of all these sort of crisis.”