Japan from the inside out

Chin-don: The movie!

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, December 13, 2008

WORLD MUSIC MAVENS and street culture vultures will be thrilled to learn that the inspired good time goofiness and novel musicality of chin-don bands has at last made it to the silver screen.

Oooh la la!

Oooh la la!

Premiering at the Espace Culturel Bertin Poirée in Paris this week was the movie Tchindon, starring the Fukuoka City-based Adachi Sendensha, a chin-don troupe headed by Adachi Hideya; Frenchman Jean Christian Bouvier; a group of child actors; and a woman named Tomato.

Chin-don music combines Japanese percussion, bells, and shamisen with such Western instruments as accordions, trumpets, and clarinets. The performers are hired to dress in a comical exaggeration of Edo-period Japanese costumes and play just about any kind of music anyone could possibly want to hear to attract customers to commercial establishments. Long time friends know that we’re nuts about the stuff; inserting the onomatopoetic term “chin-don” into the site’s search engine on the left sidebar will turn up several posts with a cornucopia of links.

In keeping with this yeasty mélange, the movie Tchindon was shot in Fukuoka, directed by Shibata Yoichi, and has a largely Japanese cast, but is in French. Don’t ask me how that happened—I haven’t seen the movie yet, and nobody’s explained it.

The inspiration likely came from M. Bouvier. He has taught at Fukuoka universities for several years and is the organizer of the World CM (television commercial) Festival. The Japanese-language website for the film says it was produced to commemorate the 150th year of relations between Japan and France. M. Bouvier also says it is a tribute to the new age of Japonisme, which is probably a French phenomenon.

Several members of the production committee and two members of Adachi Sendensha, including Mr. Adachi himself, went to Paris on the 9th to attend the premiere. To promote the film, he and Higuchi Kazumi performed in costume on the streets of Paris on the 10th, which you can see from the accompanying photo. Mr. Adachi played accordion and Ms. Higuchi played the distinctive chin-don percussion instrument. (The percussionists in chin-don music are often women.)

One can only imagine what the Parisians thought when this apparition from Japan suddenly appeared on their streets, but then again, they did invent the word sang-froid for situations such as these. Some of the French offered tips of money to the musicians; others said they were intrigued by the combination of a street music performance with advertising. The best description came from the man who commented, “I have no idea what it all means, but it sure is a lot of fun.” That’s chin-don in a nutshell!

He might well have said that about the movie itself. An article in the Nishinippon Shimbun reported that the film was conceived in the French style to focus on the visual impact and the music. The reasons for that become apparent when one reads the plot summary on the movie website. Here it is in English:

One day, a young girl encounters a chin-don band. She is enchanted by the beauty of the sound, and follows the performers around. As she listens to their performance, the town becomes so beautiful it is as if she is seeing it in a daydream. That night, she has a dream in which a group of children meet, and then part from, a chindon band who use the street as their stage.
When she wakes up, she looks for the band throughout the town, but can’t find them…

It looks like what we have is a French vehicle to celebrate chin-don music and the often unseen corners of Japan. The movie itself was filmed in small towns in Fukuoka from February to September this year. One scene was shot in the Kaho Gekijo in Iizuka, a theater built in 1931 to resemble a kabuki playhouse from the Edo period. (The theater was partially destroyed during the Fukuoka earthquake three years ago and later restored.)


There are other surprises in addition to the combination of chin-don with the French language. One is the performance of a song by Saga Haruhiko, a throat singer in the Mongolian style who also plays the morin khuur, or horsehead fiddle. Throat singing involves the creation of two different sounds in the throat. In other words, it is a performance of polyphonic music by one person without a musical instrument.

Why is he in the movie? Well, it’s chin-don–why the heck not!

And long-time readers won’t be in the least surprised to find out that the Japanese society for throat singing has a website with an English page. Voila!

The Japan premiere of Tchindon will consist of three showings at the Ajibi Hall in Fukuoka City (at the Fukuoka Asian Museum of Art, also on the right sidebar) on Sunday the 21st. Curse the luck, but I’m going to be busy doing something else that day.

I searched around for a video clip on YouTube (or anywhere else), but couldn’t find one. Isn’t that odd for a movie promoted and produced by a man who has conducted a world TV commercial festival for the past 10 years?

I’ll guess we’ll just have to wait for the DVD!

Regardless of how it turns out, my congratulations go to Jean Christian Bouvier. He had a great idea, and he got it down on film forever.

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