Founded in 1993 by Masa Ogawa, Yamato are a troupe of sixteen Japanese drummers. Based in Asuka, Japan, their artistry is centred around the Taiko, a traditional musical instrument. The company tour the world for six to ten months every year, and present original compositions to eager international stages. Following an enormously successful tour in 2015, Yamato are back in the UK by popular demand, performing The Challengers at The Peacock Theatre in Kingsway.
Set against a backdrop of a red sun and a family of bamboo trees, the stage climbs three tiers. ‘Yamato’ screams in black writing, and a cascade of fine white silks fall from above. A Tomoe design blazes the skin of a half-tonne ō-daiko drum that rests centre stage. Known as a mitsudomoe, this abstract symbol represents the threefold division at the heart of the Japanese Shinto religion: Man, Earth and Sky. Both powerful and beautiful, the staging echoes Artistic Director Ogawa’s innovative combination of traditional and modern music.
The performers are revealed wearing colourful Japanese momohiki and black t-shirts adorned with a crescent moon. Designed by Kansai Yamamoto, the costumes of the troupe added to the colourful spectacle, a vibrancy harnessed by the performers in an endless plethora of energy.
In an amazing display of physical strength, the troupe work together to use their entire bodies as a story-machine. The Taiko are played with bachi, and once struck emit a sonorous beat that pierces the skin and courses through the veins. In a celebration of the body, instruments are played with unbelievable mastery. The booming language of the drum has a conversation with every human fiber, and commanded by the drummers, the instruments speak: “Be a challenger”.
A seamless camaraderie is created between audience and performers through an unanticipated use of comedy within the piece. In a skit, the players throw and catch the beat of a drum amongst themselves, following an invisible ball with their eyes. An explosive game of table tennis was won by Kenta Ono, whose infectious grin and distinct Mohawk crowns a most memorable performance. Conducted by the group, this wonderful sense of humour keeps the spectator on their toes, sometimes literally, as a standing ovation was given at the end of the performance.
The ensemble guide the audience on a breathtaking journey, also using woodwind instruments, Shamisen, and vocals to accompany their Taiko drums. This combination of raw melodies and percussive thunder is often greeted by deafening applause, reinforcing Yamato’s awareness of the potential of the human form and creating an utterly inspiring production.
Yamato: Chousencha –The Challengers is playing the Peacock Theatre until March 25.