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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Breaking through on stage

Yuki Yamamoto

Dec. 21, 2017

Iwami Kagura is a traditional Japanese stage play. It's based on ancient myths and folk tales. People in the Iwami area of western Japan have been performing it for centuries. There are currently more than 100 troupes.

We followed one whose members include people with intellectual disabilities. They traveled to France to share their art.

The members of the troupe are from a social welfare facility. Performing gives them an opportunity to develop their communication skills.

The play is based on an ancient Japanese tale about the god Susanoo. In the story, he battles an eight-headed serpent that has been tormenting the local population.

Fumitoshi Kuwabara has been overseeing the "Iwami Kagura" practice sessions for 20 years.

"We do not treat the members differently because of their disabilities. Our Iwami Kagura is just as good as the other troupes," says Kuwabara.

The highlight of the show will be the white serpent battling Susanoo. The role of the serpent is played by 26-year-old Daisuke Oka. In France, he will be performing abroad for the first time.

"I'm looking forward to it, but also I'm a bit nervous," he says.

Oka's been working as a janitor at a building management company for around a year and a half. He has a mild intellectual disability, and finds it difficult to communicate with his colleagues. He hopes to overcome his shyness by performing in France.

“I worry because many individuals have a negative image of people with disabilities," he says. "It's hard for me to express myself. I normally keep quiet, but I want to change that.”

After two months of intense rehearsal, the troupe arrives in France. They will take part in a festival, which features artworks and performances by Japanese people with disabilities.

They’ll be giving six performances in three days. The first will be on an open-air stage in a Japanese garden. The serpent spreads out across the stage.

The final battle scene begins. A strong beat and characteristic flute melodies heighten the tension.

After the performance, some of the audience members approach the stage. But Oka can't find the courage to speak to them.

“I really want to talk to them, but I get so nervous,” he says. It's the day of the last performance in France. It's taking place at one of the largest halls in town.

After the rehearsal, the troupe members realize they need to make some last-minute adjustments. They alter their movements to allow everyone in the audience to have a better view.

Oka runs through his part one last time. He wants to do his best during the last performance. The hall fills up with an expectant crowd.

Even on the large stage, the serpent looks impressive. Oka once again gives a dynamic performance in the bulky costume.

“The serpent was amazing," says one audience member. "I was so impressed. I was shivering.”

“The artists were really professional," says another, "You would never have known they had any disabilities.”

Another opportunity for Oka to communicate with the audience comes along.

He asks a child if she wants to try on the dragon mask. “Want to put it on?” he asks.

The performance gives Oka enough confidence to approach people and speak to them.

“I was worried about whether we’d be able to pull it off, but I’m glad I was able to perform," he says. "I’m happy.”

An ancient Japanese art form served to break down cultural and communication barriers on a stage in France.

And the performers flew home, brimming with pride, and full of confidence in themselves.