Notes by Takeo Udagawa
- yurari (prayer of summoning)
- ryujin tamafuri (invocation of the dragon god)
- anima animus
IRO are a Kawasaki-based shamanic improvisation duo, consisting of husband and wife Toshio and Shizuko Orimo. Toshio (born in 1946) contributes piano, drums, percussion and vocals, while Shizuko (born in 1944) handles wood bass and vocals (previously electric guitar). The group have a long history – founded in 1981, they have been making music together for nearly 40 years. As early as 1984 the inherent quality of their “energy free music” was recognized by Ken’ichi Takeda of A-Musik, and the group was widely reported in the media, gaining coverage on Tokyo FM and in both the specialist music press (Music Magazine, Fool’s Mate) and mass-market publications like the Asahi Shinbun newspaper and Takarajima magazine. But in spite of this recognition they have remained largely neglected by the Japanese underground music scene. This neglect partly stems from their complete rejection of commercialism in their music, partly from their deep commitment to unfashionable anti-nuclear, anti-war and human rights causes.
The roots of their music lie in ethnic music and 1970s free jazz. Their earliest works could perhaps be described as ‘Ornette Coleman meets Kazuko Shiraishi with Patti Smith’ – a shamanic combination of free jazz-inflected improvisation with vocal stylizations that suggested poetry reading. They later shifted into harsh noise with full-on destructive vocals. At the time, their high-energy noise improvisations felt intensely dangerous, like a nuclear reactor-core going into meltdown, throwing out waves of radiation and intense heat.
In the 1980s they released several cassettes on their own Shaman Label, including Tamafuri, Anti-Heroism Sengen, Shamanism Rock, Vagina & Penis (all released in 1985), Kurobaba, Shio, Kaku (1986), and Ryuki Jinari (under the name Iro Orchestra, 1987). But from around 1987 their music began to become more deeply colored by ancient Shinto and ethnic music. After the Chernobyl accident the group’s performances underwent a radical change of direction, with Toshio playing stone flutes and ethnic instruments exclusively, while Shizuko danced wearing a mask from the Korean Tal-nori mask-drama. (Subsequently, they made the decision to entirely exclude electronic sounds from their performances. Only acoustic instruments that can act as an extension of the human body are used, which is why their music is described as “energy free music”). This new incarnation of the group was known as Mikomai·Iro (Shamaness Dance Iro).
The noise incarnation of Iro and the more recent Mikomai version may seem at first glance to be polar opposites, but I believe that they in fact come from the same place. Both reject modernity, and through the medium of exposed human emotionality, both attempt to return to a state that predates modern rationality. Their rejection of rationality is also a rejection of the monotheistic worldview that supports it. Their attempts to revive an animistic and pantheistic weltanschauung could also be read as being connected to neo-paganism – those beliefs that popped up in Europe and the US in the 60s and which continue to be disseminated worldwide through the internet – and the multitude of expressive forms associated with it.
"anima animus" was recorded from September 24th to 25th, 2018 at the Inter-University Seminar House, in the Tokyo suburb of Hachioji for a film by artist Heidrun Holzfeind. The unique architecture of the Seminar House–exemplified in the unusual architectural form of an inverted pyramid in the main building, which exerts such a strong presence in the film–was designed by the architect Takamasa Yosizaka, who trained with Le Corbusier. Incidentally, it was also used as the location for the science special forces team’s base in the TV series, Ultraman.
For the film they performed in various locations in the grounds of the Seminar House. The performances included improvisations on Noh flute, uchiwadaiko frame drum, kagura bells, piano and double bass, woven together with the Shinto ritual prayers known as norito. The structure of the ritual does not conform to the rituals of historical Shrine Shinto, but is rather a new form that Toshio and Shizuko call Punk Kagura, developed by them in the late 1980s. It is a unique form that they have performed at the shrines of unworshipped and nameless gods scattered across the provinces of Japan. The ritual content is a synthesis, drawing from various traditions that understand artistic performance as a form of magic, including the possession rituals performed in ancient Shinto (which predates Shrine Shinto), Native American ceremonies, Korean masked theatre, and the rituals of the Korean mudang shamans. It’s an extreme form of syncretism which enshrines multiple and conflicting spiritual existences.
The improvised performances largely follow the interchangeable structure of shamanic ritual. First, the location for the performance is purified, then the spirits are summoned. This is followed by performances and dances in which the body of the performer itself becomes a conduit and vessel for the spirits. Finally, the spirits are sent back to their own world, and the space is purified once again.
The two main tracks of the album are “anima animus” (duo) and “susabu” in which husband and wife are joined by their son, the shakuhachi performer Sabu Orimo. These were recorded inside the Central Seminar Hall, an expressive pyramid shaped building (whose form is inspired by grassthatched huts in Africa.)
A1 yurari (excerpt from a prayer of summoning)
Autumn equinox in the suburbs of Tokyo. Amidst the resonant cries of cicadas and the chirping of crickets, Shizuko’s shouts summon the gods and spirits that lie concealed in the natural environment of the ancient trails of Yuginooka among the Tama Hills. Shizuko’s self-penned and semi-improvised norito prayer departs from traditional Shinto ritual and dates back to the duo’s original Punk Kagura days.
A2 ryujin tamafuri (invocation of the dragon god)
A circling shamanic dance performed on the undulating rooftop of the Teacher’s Building (Matsushita-kan) where the tribal rhythms of the uchiwadaiko frame drum become one with the cries of the cicadas and crickets. Shizuko shakes her handmade mikosuzu bells and wears a mask similar to the hahotel masks used in Korean ritual drama. As she dances a dedicatory shrine-maiden dance (mikomai), her body itself becomes a vessel (yorishiro) to summon up the dragon god. A dance that could continue eternally.
A3 anima animus
The “Maburi Henoko” motif used here has been a recurring element in Shizuko and Toshio’s improvised performances over the past decade. Henoko is the district of Okinawa whose pristine natural marine environment is under threat of destruction from the relocation and expansion of a US Marine Corps air base. In Okinawan, maburi refers to the vital, life-sustaining spirit or soul, and here it is dedicated to the hidden and unworshipped gods of Okinawa. The piece builds tension through improvised performances on piano and double bass and free-form vocalizations/improv poetry. Compared to the harsh noise of their previous release, Tamafuri, the tone here is limpid and sublime, and feels close to a prayer. From the tranquil solo which begins the piano improvisations in the latter half, to the final section where Toshio and Shizuko’s vocalizations intertwine, the piece could be described as the condensed essence of kagura dance.
The piece begins with the dry whispering of bamboo leaves and a shakuhachi improvisation by Sabu Orimo. His approach incorporates traditional shakuhachi techniques, but also adds elements from the iconoclastic shakuhachi performer Watazumido and the Australian didgeridoo. He integrates these influences and they flower into a unique free-form style. Shizuko joins in on double bass and an improvised conversation commences. In the middle section, Toshio Orimo enters on improvised piano and the three engage in an impromptu dialogue. As they move towards the finale, their call and response takes on a new sense of urgency and Toshio’s and Shizuko’s vocalizations suddenly break through, like the arrival of some wild, ferocious spirit in the space. Then, just when you think that the three of them have tipped over into violence, Shizuko sounds a deep drone on her double bass, purifying the untamed atmosphere of the studio and all the summoned spirits withdraw back into nature.
Takeo Udagawa, October 2018. translation by Alan Cummings.