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Performance Artist's Arrow Targets the Spirit


A student of traditional Japanese archery for the last quarter-century, Hirokazu Kosaka stands just an arrow's length from his target, scrutinizing it.

There is no bull's-eye to aim at, no mark of any kind. It's just a bundle of rice-straw tied and cut in a barrel shape about 2 feet in diameter, then placed atop a wooden stand. Impossible to miss.

Three feet away, his legs spread wide, Kosaka draws the string of his 7-foot bow and brings the arrow to eye level before firing it straight and deep. He then bows and backs away.

Later, long after this Boyle Heights practice session ends, Kosaka will explain to a puzzled reporter that those who have studied Japanese archery ( kyudo ), find "a thousand targets (in the straw bundle)."

"If you look at one side, there is a hole in each straw and I'm aiming for that--one hole, maybe 1/16th of an inch--and I release my arrow in between my heartbeats. I probably hit it every time."

Archery master, Buddhist priest, flamenco guitarist and performance artist, Kosaka, 45, is re-creating his multidisciplinary 1990 spectacle "Amerika Maru" for the Japan America Theatre on April 3.

In one sense, the event celebrates the birth of the Buddha, in another a century of Kosaka's family's existence as Japanese-Americans.

"My great-grandfather came to Seattle, Wash., in 1890 and my grandfather came in the 1920s," Kosaka says. "My mother was born in Tacoma, Wash., around 1922. She went back (to Japan), and I was born in Japan.

"I came in a ship for the first time with my younger brother in 1958 when I was only 10. I have never forgotten a single moment.

"I have a son now who is the fifth generation. The stories my grandfather and my parents have told and also their photo albums have really intrigued me."

There are only 2,000 people alive from that first wave of Japanese immigration, Kosaka says, and he interviewed about 150 of them when creating "Amerika Maru."

"Everyone I met showed me photo albums. The first page was in Japan, in farmlands possibly, and on the second or third page was a ship on the docks."

"Amerika Maru" is the name of one such ship, and the production of that name captures what Kosaka calls "the feeling, the struggle" of the pioneer Japanese-Americans. Enlisting a cast of more than 100, "Amerika Maru" incorporates dance, choral and instrumental music, as well as contemporary transformations of ancient ritual.

Inevitably, kyudo plays a part:

"When the curtain opens, an arrow shoots," Kosaka says. "The image of a small, split-second of an arrow-path reminds me of the first generation.

"I think art needs to be the life, not separate from it, and that's what I'm trying to do," he declares. "It almost becomes religious.

"In Japan I did a piece, a peregrination piece in which I walked 1,000 miles, and I thought I was doing an artwork. But when I (finished the walk) in three months time I became very spiritual: The art became part of my life. So 'Amerika Maru' is not a performance art program: It is everyone's life that I depict."

Although kyudo groups existed in Los Angeles as early as 1916, Kosaka admits to being "secretive" about the group he currently leads in Boyle Heights. "It's nice to have a small, secret group in Los Angeles," he says with a smile. But the smile vanishes at any suggestion that kyudo may be some kind of cult--or a philosophy.

Indeed, Kosaka specifically rejects any connection with "Zen and the Art of Archery," an influential 1953 essay by German philosopher Eugen Herrigel.

"Kyudo is not a profound thing," he insists. "It is 100% physical training but something very clean and pure--not like karate or kendo , where they sweat."

Yes, his students all read Buddhist sutras--but for breath control. Yes, a year usually goes by before a student is allowed to shoot an arrow--but it takes that long to master basic lessons in sitting, walking, placement of weight and breathing.

"This is a very dangerous art," Kosaka explains. "You are shooting a weapon. You can miss and kill somebody even if they're standing 10 feet away. This can happen."

He acknowledges that his group practices weekly but only "maybe once a year" shoots at paper targets "28 meters (about 92 feet) away."

Kyudo can become very profound indeed as he describes it: "The bow, arrow and target become one," he says. "It becomes a search for one's path, for one's spirit. . . . I think when I face the straw, the hole in the straw, I'm trying to kill myself, meaning 'I, the ego.' I want to shoot that, and it's really difficult. . . ."

Discussing kyudo he mentions "a performance tradition that goes back hundreds of years" in Buddhist monasteries. "I think how I walk on a stage and how I am focused on a stage, anything I do, is aiming for that 1/16 of an inch of straw," he says.

"And it's not just me: (contemporary Japanese theatrical director Tadashi) Suzuki, butoh groups, Noh performers, Kabuki--they are on the same path. Especially Noh performers: When they move one inch, it signifies they have walked a thousand miles.

"I've never touched that (as a performer), but I'm trying to attain it. And the bow and arrow is showing me the way.

"I remember my father taking me to a garden," he says. "His friend, who was a priest and lived in a 13th-Century temple, had asked us to come on Aug. 15, at 8:30 in the evening, to see his garden, and we went.

"We sat on the veranda and for me nothing happened, but my father said, 'Yes' and walked away. And I really couldn't understand what it was.

"But after another 15 minutes I cracked--just laid back and laughed. Because on Aug. 15, a full moon comes up on the far side of that garden and, at 8:30, if you looked very carefully at the rock formations--the tall protruding rocks on the gravel--you could see the shadow created by the moon write 'Spirit' in Chinese. That's the kind of sensitivity I'm trying to get."

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