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Don't Mess with Samurai Monkey

Actually, samurai monkey is part of Los Angeles-based photographer Hiroshi Watanabe's latest art series, titled Suo Sarumawashi, which is centered around the ancient Japanese artform of Sarumawashi or Monkey Dancing.

Sarumawashi, as explained by the Kopeikin Gallery which is hosting Watanabe's exhibition, is a 1,000-year-old Japanese tradition that started as a religious ritual to protect the horses of warriors. The acrobatic stunts, dances, and comedic skits performed by trained macaque monkeys later developed into festival and imperial court entertainment, alongside Noh and Kabuki, as well as street performance.

Despite its popularity, sarumawashi almost became extinct in the 1970s. The urbanization of Japan and the rise of automobiles on Japan's crowded streets had sidelined sarumawashi, until a group of Japanese artists founded an organization dedicated to preserving the artform. Today, the group regularly tours Japan to perform.

In this interview with Lenscratch, Watanabe explained how he was fascinated by the range of emotions expressed by animals during a recent visit to the zoo, which reminded him of his childhood experience watching the street performance of sarumawashi in Japan. He wrote to the Suo Sarumawashi Association and asked them for permission to photograph the monkeys:

For the camera, the monkeys stood up straight and struck the poses for the plays over and over. But after a while, they started to fall back to their own inner-self, revealing their true personalities, but it only lasted until the trainers said something, and the monkeys immediately corrected the posture.

There’s always one trainer to one monkey. In other words, they work as a couple and trainers do not handle more than one monkey at any given time. They spend many hours practicing and appear on the stage together every day. This one to one relationship last until the day when the monkey retires (monkeys retire after several years of performing and afterwards live and are taken care of among other monkeys till natural death). They rely on each other and their bondage must be strong.

Take a look at more of Watanabe's fascinating photographs of Japan's dancing monkeys over at Kopeikin Gallery. (All photoraphs: Hiroshi Watanabe)

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