Shirokuma Theatre


The other night before my winter break started, I went to see the Shirokuma Theatre at Rain Dogs with Marié and friends. What is Shirokuma Theatre, you ask? Shirokuma is ‘polar bear’ in Japanese, but I much prefer the literal translation: “white bear”. White Bear Theatre turned out to be a kind of musical revue featuring Ichi, the world’s most incredible solo act; リュクサンブル公園 (Luxembourg Park), an accordion-based group of seven women; ハロメイン (Haromiin), an amateur pops big band; and of course, Chanky and Inunco’s animation, with musical accompaniment (a red toy piano!) and neo-benshi narration.

Ichi (pictured at the top of this entry) performs as a kind of one-man band with a kit consisting of steel drums, gamelan gongs, a wooden marimba, a xylophone, several wind instruments, two sources of analogue tape loops, and a small computerized box containing various samples, loops, and ambient sounds. Ichi incorporates all sorts of rhythmic and musical styles into his music, including bossa nova, reggae, African jit, Indonesian gamelan, and a steel drum street band aesthetic. In the photo above, you can see Ichi using a balloon to power one of those crazy saxo-pianos (I have no idea what they’re actually called) so he can play it while keeping his windpipes available for vocals. One of my favorite songs of his involves the words “quack like a duck” sung in a falsetto, and features various recordings of ducks and other birds mixed in with marimbas and steel drums. I knew it was going to be a good show when Ichi walked to the stage on a pair of red, plastic stilts that were rigged with some kind of bladder mechanism that made them squeak like small, rubber animal chew toys. After the show, Ichi drew a quacky duck in a hat on my copy of his album Mono, which is one of my favorite discs of the year.

The impresario of this event was Chanky-san, who is an illustrator and animator when he’s not busy putting together fantastic musico-theatrical events. Chanky and Inunco are the joint minds behind the Shirokuma animation that was the source of the name for the event as a whole. I’d seen the animation one time before, shown in conjunction with an Ett/Ryukusanburu Koen concert, but this time the narration and musical accompaniment involved more people, and the screen was bigger too. Perhaps some of the intimacy of the Barbes setting was lost, but all was made up for with the increased power of production.

In this still, Shirokuma-chan weeps for joy after perfecting her rolling ball routine. In fact, she’s standing on Panda-chan, who is curled up and acting as the ball. Panda-chan likes to roll around the stage and fart.

The final act was ハロメイン (Haromiin). I have no idea what the name means, but I can’t stop thinking of T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men,” which is undoubtedly NOT the source for the group’s name. Anyhow, the group, wearing matching blue and red sweatshirts, played a kind of homegrown big-band music that was funny and energetic. The jury was out on the singer, who some people hated because of her (purposely) squeaky and childlike voice, but since I didn’t know any of the songs that she was singing, none of them sounded particularly terrible to me. I’m easily amused though — all I really need is for a singer to make crab-claw motions with her fingers while singing the crab song (“Kani, kani!”) and I’m satisfied. For me the whole experience was like unexpectedly coming across a troup of street musicians and falling into an enjoyment of whatever world they’re creating at the moment. When the crab world appeared, all my critical faculties went straight out the door.

2 Responses to “Shirokuma Theatre”

  1. 1 Anne McKnight

    the saxo-pianos…I think they’re called kenban [keyboard] harmonicas. There’s some good info here: I think they’re used a lot in J-primary schools…a bit more elegant than the autoharp whose repertoire is, uh, a bit more…limited? At least ours ranged somewhere between “America the Beautiful” and “15 Miles on the Erie Canal”….

  2. 2 Trane DeVore

    Hi Anne — Thanks for the information abou the kenban. It makes sense that they’re so popular here now that I know that it’s a primary school instrument. I just thought there was a craze among all the cool kids!

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