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The Heron and the Geisha: A Life In Dance

Gradmaster Tachibana backstage at the Japanese National Theater

"It's the movements between the movements, that's where the good stuff is," explains Yoshie Tachibana, the grandmaster of the Tachibana school of classical dance. Grandmaster Tachibana is at the center of The Heron and the Geisha, a short documentary (37 min.) about her dance, and her school. Japanese Dance, or Nihon Buyo, is dance that originated in the Kabuki theater 400 years ago. The documentary gives a rare look into the strict and insular grandmaster system, which is how traditional arts are passed down in Japan. The film was directed by Noriko Sakamoto, herself a student of Yoshie Tachibana. The film places the dance at the center of a constellation of classical Japanese arts.

A wigmaker, himself the master of his craft, shows how real human hair several feet long is used to create the gorgeous wigs that kabuki actors and dancers wear on stage.

An old man, the last of his line, cuts cotton patterns by hand to craft the tabi, or footwear, that the dancers wear on stage. Students bow and kneel before Yoshie Tachibana, while she instructs them on how to dance. Her words are often insightful, and painfully honest, and it's not unusual to see a kimono clad woman reduced to tears on the worn wooden stage.

Backstage at the National Theater in Japan, Grandmaster Tachibana paints her face white before donning a spectacular kimono performing. When the lights go up and the music starts, the grace and beauty of a lifetime of work, supported by centuries of traditional arts, comes to life. Noriko Sakamoto spent five years editing this film, which she produced with her husband, Sean Sakamoto.

The Heron and the Geisha refers to two characters played on stage by the grandmaster of the Tachibana school of classical Japanese dance, Yoshie Tachibana.

Even though I was born and raised in Japan, I didn't begin studying classical Japanese dance, or Nihon Buyo, until I came to New York City in 1995. In Japan, the traditional arts are passed down through a very strict and insular world called the Ryu system.

Each ryu is led by a grandmaster of the art, usually a man or woman who inherited the title after a lifetime of instruction. New students are essentially disciples of the Grandmaster. When I lived in Japan, this system seemed completely inaccessible to me, but I found that the Tachibana school of dance in New York City was a bit less formal, and I found that I could join and learn the dance under the instruction of Sahotae Tachibana and Sahotoyo Tachibana.

After several years of study, our school in New York was visited by the grandmaster of the Tachibana school, Yoshie Tachibana. Meeting her was a pivotal moment for me as a dancer. Because she was outside of Tokyo, Grandmaster Tachibana felt free to relax with her New York students. She joked with us, ate with us, and shared stories in a way that would not have been possible in a Japanese setting.

After watching her dance, and taking lessons from her, I realized how unique my situation was. I had a window into a rarified world that few ever see, free from the confines of a traditionally very intimidating and rigid system.

I realized that I had to share what I was learning with others who might have an interest in traditional Japanese culture. The world of Japanese dance sits in the center of an entire ecosystem of ancient crafts. The Kabuki wigs are still crafted in the workshops of artisans, the footwear is still handmade with tools hundreds of years old, the kimonos are custom made, and the music is played on traditional instruments.

With the powerful dance and philosophy of Grandmaster Yoshie Tachibana as a center point, I had a chance to document a world that few outside, or even inside of Japan are ever able to see.

When I proposed the making of a documentary, Grandmaster Tachibana was gracious in her reply. She offered to take us backstage at the National Theater in Japan before a performance, to let us shoot her in her studio, to follow her around Tokyo as she prepared for a performance, and to dine with her in some of Tokyo's finest restaurants.

My husband, the videographer and co-producer, had no prior experience with a video shoot. He took classes on sound, lighting, and shooting at DCTV, a community filmmaking organization in downtown New York. I had no previous experience as a director, and read books and watched documentaries for an idea of how to proceed.

The shoot itself was stressful. My husband didn't speak a word of Japanese, and he had to intuit what might be an important moment as he navigated the arcane world of manners that is the Japanese Ryu system.

When we arrived in Japan, it was clear from the start that we were dealing with the Grandmaster of a school of dance, not with the relaxed, open teacher who was visiting New York City. As we learned to fit into the system, with our big camera and boom microphone, eventually we became comfortable with bowing women in kimonos on the verge of tears, with orders barked in sharp tones, and a swarm of disciples eager to make sure everything went well.

Grandmaster Tachibana showed us places and people we would never have imagined seeing. We heard the hiss of the iron as it steamed a human hair wig into shape. We tasted the salty, crunchy bites of fish spines tied into knots and deep fried in the Imperial Hotel, and we watched centuries old dance come alive on stage, performed by the most powerful, graceful, and majestic figure in classical Japanese dance today.

Noriko Sakamoto, Director and Editor

The Heron and the Geisha: A Life In Dance

Noriko tries on a wig made by master wigmaker, Mr. Osawa.

Noriko Sakamoto, a certified nutritionist from Japan, left everything and came to New York City in 1995 to study acting. After several years of study, she realized she'd rather work behind the camera, and eventually became a television editor, cutting shows like Trauma: Life in the ER, for New York Times Television; Weird US, for Kralyevich Productions, Inc and History Detective, for Lion Television.

During those years in New York, Noriko also studied classical Japanese dance with the Tachibana School in the Buddhist Church on Manhattan's Upper West Side. When she finally met the grandmaster of her dance school, Noriko realized she had to document the world of Tachibana dance.

When asked why she decided to make the film, Noriko explained it this way. "When I saw Iemoto Tachibana dance, I was moved by her combination of strength and grace. I realized I had to show people what I saw in the dance."

Noriko and her husband, Sean Sakamoto, an ad copywriter, took classes together at DCTV in downtown Manhattan, where they learned the basics of shooting, sound, and lighting. They sold their New York apartment, and traveled to Tokyo with their one-year-old son to begin production on what would originally take five years to complete. They soon learned that properly convey the dance, they had to show the world from which it came, and that included the elaborate wigs, kimonos, make-up, and even the footwear that is all used in the dance.

Noriko was already an experienced editor, but she had to learn to direct on the job. Telling her husband what to shoot, when he didn't speak a word of Japanese and everyone was talking at once, was just one challenge she faced. Noriko also had to walk the fine line of being a student of a very strict teacher in a traditional world, and being a director who has to get the shot no matter what, even if that means sticking the camera in her grandmaster's face and asking her to explain herself one more time.

Once the shooting was finished, the editing came easy. Noriko's sense of timing and storytelling had been honed over years of high pressure work freelancing in New York. "Weaving the story together took a long time to get right, but it was fun," Noriko said. "I think people will finally have a chance to see Iemoto's dance the way I do, as a rich example of incredible mastery and grace."

Sean Sakamoto, Producer Bio

Sean Sakamoto made his first movies as claymation monster films when he was just 8 years old. As a student in the creative writing program at San Francisco State University, he created a short film, Critizen, with his friend, Micheal LaHaie, which screened at the Sundance Film Festival in 1995.

Sean then moved to New York City with dreams of becoming an actor, but a few auditions put him off that plan. He worked at Scholastic, Inc. and wrote freelance for Black Book magazine before getting into internet advertising as a copywriter, but he still remembered fondly his brief foray into filmmaking.

When his wife, Noriko, said she wanted to make a documentary about her dance grandmaster, Sean agreed immediately. "I'd seen Iemoto dance, and I knew how lucky we were to have the chance to get close to her and document what she does," he explained. "When I first saw her dance, she took the stage and my heart leapt into my throat. Iemoto Tachibana is a force of nature. Bringing her art to a wider audience is a chance to do some real good in the world."

Sean took classes at New York's Downtown Community Television Center on lighting, sound, and camera technique. Then he bought the equipment he needed out of proceeds from a sold apartment. "At first we tried to get grants, but we found the process of grantwriting to be very time consuming. We really could have used the help, but we realized that if we were going to make this documentary, we were better off doing it on our own."

They flew with their young son to Tokyo to shoot for six weeks and follow Iemoto Tachibana around the city. The biggest challenge for Sean was that he didn't speak a word of Japanese. "I had to guess what the most important thing to shoot was, since I didn't know what was being said. Sometimes my wife would point at something, and I'd focus on that."

There were times when his ignorance of the language and customs actually worked to his advantage. "Sometimes I just went backstage to get a shot, or walked into places with a camera that I probably wasn't allowed to go. But since I couldn't understand anyone, nobody knew how to get rid of me. It also helped that I had the blessing of Iemoto Tachibana, a woman that I think most theater administrators would not want to oppose," Sean said.

Once the footage was shot, Sean and Noriko went back to New York to begin post-production. It took five years to cut the film, because they both had to work to pay the bills. Finally, it took a move back to Japan where Sean now teaches English to give Noriko the time to finish editing. Sean spends the extra time he has studying Japanese and putting the finishing touches on "Rictus", novel about a virus that spreads optimism before its victims die. While he feels a bit alone in rural Japan, the move was necessary to complete the Heron and the Geisha.

"Being back in Japan actually really helped put me in the right frame of mind to finish cutting the Heron and the Geisha," Noriko said. They're both happy with the documentary and extremely grateful to the Rhode Island International Film Festival for the opportunity to premier the documentary at such a prestigious location.

"It's fantastic that they have a Japanese category. We feel honored to be able to participate," Sean said.

What's next for the family? "We want to make a narrative about an alienated foreigner in rural Japan," Sean said.

To contact the filmaker, email: noriko.sakamoto@gmail.com