Michiana Chronicles: Facing the Tiger

Apr 13, 2018

Erika Fujii

The best art is not tame, but wild, like a caged animal whose enclosure seems at first to be a protective barrier but expands and grows around us, so that almost before we know it we are alone with the tiger. Such art convicts us of our inadequacies, helping us to live with a refreshed sense of honesty. It makes us more serious about our lives. This happened to me in Tokyo last year, and I’ve been reliving the experience all this week during the visit of Taiko drummer Erika Fujii.

The IU South Bend Japanese Club has hosted Erika in performances at the Friday Music Convocation, the International Food Festival, at a Japanese Club fundraiser, at an arts event at LangLab hosted by Lit Literary Collective and featuring poet Naoko Fujimoto, and at several schools in South Bend and Elkhart. Today Erika Fujii performs at the annual Asian Heritage Festival at IU South Bend’s University Grill (free to the public, starting at 5:30 PM). I’ve had the job of taking Erika to her events, which involves the loading and unloading of drums and equipment, overseeing the setup, and so forth. It’s as if I’ve been granted my teenage dream of being a roadie for a rock and roll band.

I met Erika Fujii almost a year ago. As one of the directors of the Japan-Hong Kong summer program, I saw her perform at the Sakura Hostel at Asakusa, Tokyo. The event was part of a “cultural experience” schedule that the better youth hostels provide to guests free of charge. Taiko still has its ritual uses, but the modern form of Japanese drumming has the same goals as many familiar music forms: originality, energy, and emotion. Erika used a set of four drums, in some pieces combining their tones, and sometimes isolating one drum in a concentrated exploitation of a single tone. One of these single-drum performances moved me most profoundly, a piece on the large, barrel-shaped Nagado taiko on which Erika Fujii seemed to march toward and through her audience in a forceful advance, softly and slowly at first, then in prolonged forceful attacks. What impressed me was not simply the power of the music, the beating of this drum like an enormous heart, but also, and most of all, the utter commitment of the drummer. Every movement of her body and the determination in her expression contributed to my conviction that at the center of her form, at the center of her life, was an absolute commitment to her art.

When we say that a stage actor inhabits a role, we mean that the person of the actor disappears behind or within the image he or she creates of another person, another being, a fiction. In the case of the Japanese drummer, the immersion occurs without the protection of an illusion of otherness. We glimpse this process when we watch a great pianist play, but the hammering mechanisms are at a remove from the artist and hidden from us. A great drum solo is more open and vulnerable. The entire effort is visible and comes at us as a challenge, the challenge of the tiger, perfect in its form, and more alive, more serious, more honest than we are.

It’s an art. Erika challenges me to be more myself by giving herself so fully, not protecting herself in advance, not hedging, and not waiting for the right moment to live, but living now in the uncertainty of this moment, in the time that she actually has in hand. Her lesson to us is that now is the time. Why is that lesson so hard to learn?

Music by Erika Fujii