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Kagura (神楽 (かぐら), "god-entertainment") is a specific type of Shinto ritual ceremonial dance. The phrase is a contraction of "kami no kura(seat of god)", indicating the presence of god in the practice. One major function of Kagura is "Chinkon (purifying and shaking the spirit).", involving a procession-trance process. Usually a female shaman will perform the dance and obtain the oracle from the god----in the setting, the dancer herself turns into god during the performance. Once strictly a ceremonial art derived from kami'gakari (神懸 (かみがかり), "oracular divinification"), kagura has evolved in many directions over the span of more than a millennium. Today, it is very much a living tradition, with rituals tied to the rhythms of the agricultural calendar, thriving primarily in parts of Shimane prefecture, and urban centers such as Hiroshima.
There are two major types of kagura----mai and odori. Mai presents the slow circular movement, stressing quiet and elegance; While odori presents quick leaping and jumping, stressing activation and energy. The two types can be understood as two phrases of kagura----the mai is a preparation process for trance and odori is the unconscious trance stage.
During mai dance, the female shaman, surrounded by a group of priests, holds gohei (a ceremonial wand used to cleanse or purify) as well as other sound producing instruments and engages with circling movement to summon deities. Once the female shaman enters a possessed status, she switches into spontaneous leaping movements, which is called odori.
The epics Kojiki and Nihon Shoki describe a folktale origin for the dances. In these texts, there is a famous legendary tale about the sun goddess Amaterasu, who retreated into a cave, bringing darkness and cold to the world. Ame-no-Uzume, goddess of the dawn and of revelry, led the other gods in a wild dance, and persuaded Amaterasu to emerge to see what the ruckus was all about. Kagura is one of a number of rituals and arts said to derive from this event.
Originally called kamukura or kamikura (神座), kagura began as sacred dances performed at the Imperial court by shrine maidens (miko) who were supposedly descendants of Ame-no-Uzume. During the performance, the shrine maidens usually utilize a channeling device for god such as masks and spears to imitate the trance. With the kagura music that has the power to summon the gods, the miko start to dance to transforming herself into the representation of the gods and receiving message as well as blessing from the deities. In 1871, Iwami Shinto offices claimed that theatrical kagura performed by priests in the west of Japan demeaned their dignity and therefore banned the performance. Owning to the support of civilian performing groups at that time, the performance pieces were still preserved.
Over time, however, these Mikagura (御神楽) performed within the sacred and private precincts of the Imperial courts, inspired popular ritual dances, called satokagura (里神楽), which, being popular forms, practiced in villages all around the country, were adapted into various other folk traditions and developed into a number of different forms. Among these are miko kagura, shishi kagura, and Ise-style and Izumo-style kagura dances. Many more variations have developed over the centuries, including some which are fairly new, and most of which have become highly secularized folk traditions.
Kagura, in particular those forms that involve storytelling or reenactment of fables, is also one of the primary influences on the Noh theatre.
The formal Imperial ritual dances (Mikagura) were performed in a number of sacred places and on a number of special occasions. At the Imperial Sanctuary, where the Sacred Mirror is kept, they are performed as part of gagaku court music. Mikagura are also performed at the Imperial harvest festival and at major shrines such as Ise, Kamo, and Iwashimizu Hachiman-gū. Since around the year 1000, these events have taken place every year.
According to the ritual department of the Imperial Household Agency, mikagura still take place every December in the Imperial Sanctuary and at the Imperial harvest festival ceremonies.
Satokagura, or "normal kagura", is a wide umbrella term containing a great diversity of folk dances derived from the Imperial ritual dances (Mikagura), and incorporated with other folk traditions. For the sake of brevity, a selection of traditions from the Kantō region will be used as examples:
Around the time of the beginning of the Tokugawa shogunate (1603–1868), performances derived from this emerged in Edo as a major form of entertainment. In connection with the celebrations surrounding the beginning of the shogunate, lion dances, acrobatics, juggling, and a great variety of other entertainments were performed on stages across the city, all nominally under the auspices of "daikagura". Over the course of the period, these came to be more closely associated with rakugo storytelling and other forms of popular entertainment, and still today, daikagura continues to be performed and include many elements of street entertainment.