The samurai were Japan’s military nobility between the 12th and 19th centuries. Their lives were ruled by a strict code of ethics and a deep sense of duty. For hundreds of years samurai warriors would practice choreographed moves just like the ones I was watching to improve their technical skills. This was called kembu which literally means “sword dance”. It is said that samurai would perform dances like this before a battle in order to raise their spirits and improve their concentration.
The samurai class was disbanded when Japan entered the modern world in the late 19th century. However, some former samurai preserved their skills and made a new livelihood by giving swordplay performances. Kembu dances, accompanied by songs that told stirring tales of battle, or sentimental tales of parting and loss, were a popular part of their repertoire. Today at Samurai Kembu Theater, the followers of this tradition, are keeping the samurai spirit alive and teaching a new generation the discipline of swordsmanship, and the dignity of the dance.
Included in the show are some fan dances. There have been times in the past when swords were outlawed in Japan. During such times, kembu practitioners adapted their dances to use fans instead of blades. These fan dances were very beautiful, and were retained as part of the kembu repertoire even after swords were made legal again. We were shown some typical ways in which the fan is used in the dance to help to tell a story. Raised to the lips, it becomes a saké cup, fluttering down it becomes the rain, twirling it is falling leaves, and undulating it is the snow.
To experience this martial art form and have dinner: