I got hooked onto Yabusame since the first time I watched it. Although it was many years later that I realized that the first time I saw it was in one of Kurosawa’s movies (Seven Samurai and Kagemusha). For me, the art and skill had a charm like so many other elements of Japan – The event and the moment are itself very short … the archer in full samurai gear takes off, aims and fires the arrow at the first target, reloads, aims, fires at the second target, reloads, aims, fires at the last target controlling his horse at full gallop and encouraged by the loud cheers of the mesmerized crowd.
Last weekend, I had the opportunity to watch two different styles of Yabusame. One with the Ogasawara group at Sumida Park in Asakusa, and the other with the Takeda group in Kamakura. I had frequently seen the Takeda group perform and found the Ogasawara group to be different in not only the costumes, but also the Kakegoe (loud screaming) as they approach the target and moved to the next one.
Toshiro Mifune, Kurosawa’s hero of many movies, was a member of the Takeda school of archery and this is the group that I have regularly photographed over the past many years. This year brought some new players out in the Takeda Group who wanted to compete in the big events and some seasoned players rested including Orihara-san. Unlike Sumo, the veterans can continue to compete but then there are others who have practiced and waited for a long time for their day in the sun. This time (as well as many times in the past) Akiyama-san performed very well and was humble and smiling as I gave him a picture from I previous event I had photographed.
As a photographer, the challenge is to decide which one of the many moments is the decisive one:
Is it the approach at full gallop with the towering bow and arrow in position?
Is it the aim with the arrow in position and the eyes locked on the target?
Is it the release of the arrow which makes its way towards the target?
Is it the arrow hitting the target and breaking it into pieces?
Is it the truimphant look of the archer when that happens?
Or is it the disappointment which overtakes the archer after the miss and as he slows down his horse and joins the rest of the archers?
Add to that, the complexity of the lighting, the speed of the action, the focussing limitations of the camera and the perfect picture is like a hole-in-one. And maybe that is why I keep going back to photograph again and again.