Ukiyo – The Floating World

In medieval Japan the word Ukiyo meant ‘world of suffering’, reflecting the violence and wars of that period and also the pervasive buddhist idea that humans seek happiness but find only unhappiness. However by the 1700s, society had been transformed, pacified and to a certain extent unified. Edo, the capital, (later to become Tokyo) was a thriving city of diverse cultural influences. On the outskirts of the city was the entertainment area, a kind of demi-monde, full of tea houses in which storytellers, dancers and prostitutes vied for attention. There were high class brothels, musical performances, puppet theatres (joruri) and perhaps most importantly the Kabuki theatre, which during this period developed into an all-encompassing form of theatre, that touched all social classes and dealt with previously taboo subjects. Immensely popular with both samurai and farmers, the shows could last for up to eight hours.(The samurai often disguised themselves since they considered Kabuki to be socially beneath them, but its appeal was addictive.) This suburb of pleasure became known as Ukiyo, the floating world, using a pun on the word ‘uki’ which meant waves. This era also saw the beginnings of the great golden age of woodblock prints, now made famous by celebrated artists like Hokusai and Hiroshige. This genre of woodblock prints also became known as Ukiyo-e and it chronicled the life and times of Edo, the ladies of the leisure quarter and the stars of the Kabuki theatre.

The performance ‘Ukiyo – The Floating World’ by Forgotten Fish Memory Orchestra was staged in the Paradiso in Amsterdam. By use of semi-transparent screens, very precise lighting and back projections, they tried to create their own Ukiyo. The background would slowly shift from lunar landscape to life at the bottom of the ocean. The musicians were kabuki-esque type figures floating through this changing world. Some of the instruments also appeared to float (they were suspended from the ceiling on long invisible strings).The band’s costume specialists, Ondina and Milu-Ling, created

kimonos for the orchestra, made from ships sails. During the show, the stage props were moved or replaced by little black semi-invisible characters, dressed like shadowy ‘ninjas’, a theatrical effect lifted directly from Kabuki Theatre.

The music itself however was not exclusively oriental. It was the usual mix of experimental pieces played on DIY home-made instruments, Scottish/Arabic tunes, Tibetan and Japanese melodies which incorporated toys and transistor radios, and a Mexican/Lebanese funeral piece.

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