Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Oct 02, 2022 6:57 pm 
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Women who have entered the macho world of Japanese Taiko drumming give a historic collective performance

Just between you and me, Japan has one of the most macho, misogynistic, women-manipulating of the first world cultures. This is not dwelt upon in this documentary. It is an enthusiastic postcard from some leading female Taiko drummers and from an historic concert they played in. But it is something that adds excitement to the story the film tells about women who have entered the formerly all male world of Taiko drumming, and who gather for a joint "HerBeat" performance in Minnesota in the dead of winter as the Coronavirus pandemic is coming.

It's a surprise since everything in Japanese culture seems to be ancient, to learn that while the big drums go back to the sixth century, Kumi-daiko, which an extensive [url=""]Wikipedia article on "Taiko"[/url] tells us is the name for performing on Taiko for the public, didn't start till after WWII, in the fifties and sixties. It was only more recently that women wangled their way in. But it's also true that despite all the traditionally Japanese lore and ritual surrounding the drums and playing them, there are taiko drum groups all over, most notably in Australia, Brazil, North America and Italy. One can see in this dispersal and variety a wedge into Japanese hegemony and male domination, which isn't so rigid in other first world countries.

The focus is on some women who have made a mark in this field. The filmmakers follow them and interview them from Minnesota to Japan. The film climaxes and bookends with a "first time, historic" performance gathering some of the best women Taiko performers from Japan and North America at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts in Saint Paul, Minnesota, including stars from Japan who had never played together in Japan. Jennifer Weir, who is of Japanese descent, and director of TaikoArts Midwest, is a leading figure of this event. She, her wife Megan Chao Smith (a Korean adoptee from North Dakota), and their daughter, Josie, who live in Minnesota, are featured. Megan lived, trained and toured with a professional performing Taiko group, in Japan, a great experience, though she withdrew from it because she thought it would be the end of her.

Also present here are Chieko Kojima, founding member of Kodo Taiko Performing Arts Ensemble, based on Sado island; Tiffany Tamrabuchi, a Taiko master based in Sacramento, California, who brought Chieko to California to perform years earlier; and Kaoly Asano, a dynamic performer with a sweeping mane of hair, who represents Gocoo, of Tokyo. They and more, including Mayumi Hashimoto and Iris Shiraishi, will be on stage for the exciting Minnesota performance. Many have Japanese names, many understand Japanese. Kaoly Asano is a person who keeps drawing our attention, because of her presence, her style, and the way she bravely integrates into what remains still primarily an Anglophone production effort. Her special piece called "Eleven" (referring to the March 11, 2011 Japan earthquake and tsunami, and also September 11) is one of the highlights of the show.

This film spends a lot of its time focusing on the run-up to the Minnesota show day by day, though it also manages to show highlights of the show itself. The planning and rehearsals are a complicated business, in which Jennifer works to let all the women be themselves yet coordinate them into a show while the winter temperatures are low and finally the Covid pandemic is creeping on and some of them get sick, while others are exhausted from the hard work, the close quarters with a lot of strangers, and the stress of Minnesota winter. Above all this is a celebration for these women of what they have accomplished and a sharing of their different life experiences all of which converged in dedication to Taiko. If we feel a little of what these very diverse performers and this lucky audience felt on this historic night in Saint Paul, the film will have succeeded. (I hope it was not a super-spreader event.)

Finding Her Beat is an ebullient and hopeful film that will appeal to music fans as well as feminists. It's a thoroughly conventional documentary in form, and just as the stage is crowded in the titular performance, there is the feeling that the dual directors are trying to cram a little too much in and might have fared better with fewer, more striking moments. But the feeling and the message are too strong to object.

Finding Her Beat, 129 mins., premieres at Mill Valley Oct. 9 and 11, 2022. Produced by TaikoArts Midwest and Emergence Pictures.


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