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MANGEKYO by DRUM TAO: Wadaiko drumming in Tokyo

One of Japan’s premiere taiko groups impresses at its own exclusive theater in Tokyo

Taiko drumming is something you have to hear - and see - in person to understand why it leaves so many in awe.

In the last several decades, the performance art known in Japan as wadaiko, literally meaning "Japanese drum," has become an iconic part of Japanese culture: huge thundering drums athletically attacked by muscular men wearing Edo Period outfits - or simply a loincloth for extra effect. Traditional taiko drums have been used throughout Japan for centuries, but a new modernization in the taiko world has catapulted the instrument from the esoteric rituals of Buddhist temples to the mainstages of international venues.

At just over 60 years old, even this relatively new artform is constantly evolving. And perhaps no other taiko group in Japan embodies the bleeding edge of "taiko" as a stage art more than the group DRUM TAO.

The first time I saw a video of DRUM TAO on the Internet, I was both impressed and a bit shocked. More often than not, taiko groups both in Japan and internationally generally approach their performance styles, costuming and staging in a way that evokes a mythos of taiko as an ancient, "traditional" artform.

Not so with Tao. Often clad in suits, black leather trench coats and elaborate, colorful costumes evocative of Cirque du Soleil in posters and teaser videos, gracing stages that seem more at home in a science fiction movie than your neighborhood temple, the group's members send a clear message: this isn't your grandfather's taiko.

With this image in mind, I was extremely curious to see Tao peform in real life.

At a venue called the Alternative Theater in Tokyo's Yurakucho neighborhood (not far from Ginza), the group stages a show they call MANGEKYO. With near daily performances, reasonable ticket prices, and signage and programs in both Japanese and English, it was clear that the group intended this show to be widely accessible.

Once the house lights dimmed, the show began with soft dancing lights all around the theater accompanied by a mysterious melody played on bamboo flute by a soloist in a flowing white gown. But it wasn't long until a loud boom reverberated across the room. Taiko drums never miss an opportunity to enter with a bang.

The group's members quickly arranged themselves with tight syncronization, dressed in stylish, Japanese-inspired but very modern outfits carrying portable okedo drums slung around their shoulders. The rhythms were fast, catchy and loud, but always in control. But perhaps even more striking was how they moved: always in sync and with the grace of trained dancers, but with a presence and confidence that really left an impression.

As the pieces changed, so did the stage. Custom-fitted with a projection mapping system, the theater itself became a part of the show, projecting images from crashing ocean waves to kaleidescopic shapes to a bamboo forest across the backdrop and walls. The digital art projections were designed by teamLab, an interdisciplinary group of artists and technologists behind popular exhibits such as "Borderless" in Tokyo's Odaiba and elsewhere around the world.

With almost every piece, the players' costumes changed as well, from hyper-futuristic asymmetric robes that seemed almost metallic, to silky dresses, to (as I'd eagerly awaited) spike-studded leather trenches. For particularly intense pieces, cast members weren't afraid to show off their muscles a bit, driving home just how physically demanding their performances were.

As the show continued, I was impressed to see that the cast didn't simply limit themselves to being a troupe of taiko drummers. Almost every member of the group had multiple talents they showcased on stage, from dancing to playing multiple instruments to incredible circus art performances.

The show bristled with restless energy and reveled in its fast-paced action and transitions.

When the 80-minute show finally came to an end, it was no surprise the audience quickly demanded an encore. Thankfully, the group was ready to deliver and pull out all the stops for their final number. Interestingly, audience members were actually encouraged to take photos and video during this short finale, which they readily enjoyed doing.

All in all, for me, MANGEKYO excitingly lived up to the "hype." The group doesn't apologize for its modern vision for taking taiko into the 21st century, but it also hasn't lost the heart of what makes taiko such a visceral, timeless, inspiring experience.

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