Contributed by Julia Stier

Through the use of masks and interactive technology, Japan House‘s newest exhibit, Bakeru: Transforming Spirits, invites guests to play an active role in the preservation of culture and tradition.

Created by the Japanese art studio WOW, Bakeru highlights four folk traditions from the northern region of Tohoku in Japan. These traditions center around honoring and thanking the natural world for its resources, and asking for bountiful harvests in the coming season.

The exhibit is free and open to the public. 

The festivals featured in this exhibit include:

Saotome, Sendai City, Miyagi Prefecture: The name translates to “early maiden.” Young women perform this dance in rice fields as a way of communicating with the gods to ask for rain and a good harvest.

Shishi-Odori, Iwate and Miyagi Prefectures: In this “deer dance,” dancers wear deer-like costumes and perform the ceremony as a prayer for a fruitful harvest.

Kasedori, Kaminoyama City, Yamagata Prefecture: In the middle of winter, Japanese youth don large costumes made of straw and run through the city, while onlookers splash the runners with celebratory water. The festival gets its name from the legendary bird, Kasedori, which the costumes resemble.

Namahage, Oga City, Akita Prefecture: Every New Year’s Eve, the fearsome mountain ogre, Namahage, comes down to the village to frighten lazy children. Families invite the ogre into their homes and offer him food and drink until, appeased, he returns to the mountains, taking bad spirits with him.

Visitors to the Bakeru exhibit first undergo a transformation by putting on masks equipped with motion capture technology and then take part in these traditional practices through interactive, multimedia and visual presentations. The exhibit room contains four screens, one for each festival. Posted signs invite guests to perform a specific, simple move representative of each dance/festival. Visitors then get to see the blessings they are invoking represented in colorful animated images onscreen.

Japan House LA‘s senior curator Trast Howard says that in many of the northern regions of Japan, most young people left their hometowns to move to the cities. However, the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011, which devastated parts of Japan, served as “an awakening for the younger generations to preserve where they are from.” Howard continues that since most of these traditions have been passed down and learned through interaction/participation, WOW’s exhibit has “helped the community reconnect with tradition, (…) teaching a new way of passing them on.”

Bakeru: Transforming Spirits is on display at Japan House LA, which is located on Level 2 of the Hollywood & Highland Center (6801 Hollywood Blvd, Hollywood, CA 90028).

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