Drummer Youichi Hashimoto assumes a fearsome martial arts stance--legs spread wide, feet planted on the floor. As if stringing a giant bow, he slowly raises and opens his arms, in each hand a wooden drum stick the size of a baseball bat.
From a preparatory stretch backward, he lunges forward toward a huge barrel drum and begins beating out thunderous rhythms. Folk traditions link these rhythms to the oar strokes made by Japanese ancestors as they crossed stormy seas to reach the islands.
Preserving such traditions is the purpose of Ondeko-za, the "demon drum group," which will perform at 8 p.m. Sunday and Monday at UC Irvine.
The 11-member troupe will play a variety of instruments, including a 700-pound odaiko (great drum) carved from a single tree trunk. The program also will include character and dance dramas, folk songs and music from traditional Japanese festivals.
Barefoot and wearing a variety of colored sweat pants, T-shirts and jump suits, members of the group rehearsed recently in the basement of a Buddhist temple in Los Angeles.
Some players tightened down the thick cords of rope that hold together their small, two-headed drums. Others paired off to do the innumerable sit-up exercises necessary to strengthen their stomach muscles: the drummers frequently play from an excruciating half-laid-back position.
Then seven drummers--five men and two women--launched into a 25-minute warm-up of furious nonstop drumming. Incidentally, Ondeko-za is non-sexist: The women are required to play as fiercely and with as much vigor as the men do.
The company was formed by Den Tagayasu a year after the 1968 student riots in Japan. Den, now 56, wanted to provide a spiritually fulfilling alternative for disgruntled young people who resisted becoming "salary men," their derisive term for 9-to-5 workers.
He hoped to instill a new sense of idealism and purpose by reviving traditional folk arts--music, dance and drama--that were rapidly dying out as Japan became increasingly Westernized.
Den and his group lived austerely, communally on the remote island of Sado, once a place of exile, in the eastern Japan Sea, 170 miles north of Tokyo.
The company members farmed together, studied together and ran together. Long-distance running became a major discipline. It built stamina. It focused the mind. It helped synchronize the individual's inner and outer rhythms, according to company member Marco Lienhard.
When Ondeko-za made its American debut in Boston in 1975, the performers captured attention by running in the city's marathon--and immediately afterward giving the crowd an impromptu concert.
Performances in Los Angeles in 1977 also created a sensation.
But success brought problems. Friction, artistic cross-purposes, disagreements about discipline developed.
In 1979, all but three members left to form a new group, Kodo (the word means both "heartbeat" and "drumming children"), which was last seen locally at the 1984 Olympic Arts Festival.
(Kodo founder Toshio Kawauchi died Jan. 1 in an apparent drowning accident while scuba diving on a beach 150 miles south of Manila, according to a spokesman for the group. A scheduled American tour, which includes performances on Jan. 30 and 31 in Los Angeles, will continue, the spokesman said.)
After the split, Den reconstituted Ondeko-za. The new troupe, with members ages 19 to 35, moved to the town of Unzen, two hours from Nagasaki.
The austere regimen of study, practice and running continues, but the plot of land is too small for serious farming.
"Den is hard on us," said Lienhard, 24, during a rehearsal break. "He insists that we practice every day. But he is a gentle force and the intelligence of the group. He gives us images more than technique--images of what it is to be an artist."
A native of Switzerland, Lienhard is the only Westerner in the group.
Lienhard said he went to Japan as an exchange student, planned to study with the company for only a month to learn the shakuhachi (bamboo flute) and has been with them for four years.
"I wasn't a musician or a dancer before I came to Ondeko-za, though I had studied some piano," he said. "Drumming is something you learn with your body, through daily practice.
"When we play together, the music is all set. But when we have a solo, it's half improvised, but within several patterns."
Like all members of Ondeko-za, Lienhard plays with an intense look of concentration on his face. "When I play, I think of images of the ocean or the mountains--or the end of the Boston Marathon. I have run in it twice," he said.
According to Lienhard, the troupe plans to run across the country in both directions after participating in the 1989 Boston Marathon. They will run 20 miles a day and give 100 performances a year. The project will take three years, he said.
Lienhard said that he encountered no prejudice from the Japanese because he is a Westerner.
"If anything it was the opposite," he said. "The Japanese feel that everything that comes (across) the ocean is a god."
Lienhard said that there is no friction among the members of the new group: "Maybe we take out our frustrations in drumming."