(Photograph courtesy of Ryuji Sasaki)
Mikio Oshima has worked in circus for decades. He got his start as a bear caretaker for a Russian circus. Nowadays, he works as a producer for After Cloudy Company (est. 1984 by mentor Keiichi Nishida). He says their company name serves him well when he travels and hands out his business card, because people always ask, “After cloudy, will it be sunny?”
Although Mikio Oshima comes from a traditional circus background, he is open to the artistic changes he sees occurring in his industry. He is a curious and receptive man, always looking for ways to connect with other cultures and ideas as a means to improve his understanding of the circus industry. When he isn’t producing circus shows, he is a historian and writer, having written 5 books on circus related topics. I spoke with Mr. Oshima about his origins in the circus world, his work and his hopes and dreams for the future of Japanese circus.
How did you become interested in circus?
I wrote about this in my book Circus Is My University. At the university, I studied Russian avant-garde art and theater was my specialty. I intended to get a doctorate, but I missed the exam, because I had to find work to get money. I thought I’d try to go back to school the following year. I found a want ad in the newspaper. The job listing was by a promoter who invited artists from the USSR to visit Japan. The president thought I could speak Russian well, so he hired me, even though I could only just read Russian well.
My first job was to travel with a Russian stage circus. I worked as stage boy and helped with the bear show. My work was to buy food for the bears, set up the show and assist on stage. It was very hard work, and my college opportunities slowly drifted away. Although it was difficult work, I found it interesting, and very good for me to travel every day. I really loved traveling! It was so much fun to work with circus performers and every day was so different. I decided to stay with this job for good. So I titled the first chapter of my book ‘Circus is my university’ And the Bear was my teacher.
What is the best circus school in Japan?
There is only one circus school in Japan, called Souri. It was started 15 years ago by my companies’ president, Keiichi Nishida. Its not in Tokyo, it’s in the village of Midori. He also made the Japanese Circus Association and he’s passionate about making people love the circus.
What types of shows do you produce?
At first, I worked with mainly Soviet and East European circuses. These were big stage circus with animals. With the After Cloudy company, we invite many small circuses to come perform for the Japanese theme park Little World. We’ve had circus performers from Mongolia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Cuba, Latin America, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Scandinavia, and so on. I’ve also produced nouveau circuses with French, Ukrainian and Belgian circus artists.
What do you love about your work?
I love that circus is a small world, but through the circus we connect with the whole world. For example, because I can speak Russian, in the circus world I can connect with Russians. But thanks to my work in circus I’ve also connected with Mongolians,Vietnamese, Germans, Chinese, and Cubans. It is very interesting to learn how people from other cultures think and work.
Tell me about your books. How many have you written and on what topics?
I published 10 books, and 5 of them are written about circus. They are all written in Japanese and have not yet been translated to other languages. Circus and Revolution; the Life of the Clown Lazarenko, Circus Performer Across the Board, Circus is My University, Circus Artists of the Meiji Era--Why Did It Disappear in Russia? & Circus Academy Is Born.
What is next for you?
I have a new book in my series called Circus Academy which I will publish. It is about the trapeze.
This year I will produce a European circus for the Little World Theme Park. It is a traditional circus performed on a stage with circus artists from Poland, Bulgaria, Hungary and Ukraine.
I also want to travel with a small circus in villages and towns which have been damaged by the earthquake and tsunami. It’s a dream I am working on and so many artists have told me “If you need help, we’ll do it with pleasure!” But it is not so easy to organize a circus tour with so many people. I am looking for a big top to handle 300 people. The towns are still in poor shape and need help. There are so many lives damaged and they still don’t have houses and the community is destroyed. So if we travel to them with the circus many people could gather in the big top and maybe it will help them emotionally in a small way.
Is it more difficult to write a book or produce a show?
Neither is difficult for me because I love to write and produce circus shows. What I like about writing though is to do research, especially with circus history because no one really writes about it and there are so many secrets. I’m very intrigued by digging around for them.
What is the future of circus in Japan and Asia?
Personally, I want to produce more kinds of circus shows. Internationally, there are national circuses, new circus and smaller companies and I’d like to produce circus from many kinds of backgrounds. Now in Japan its only Cirque du Soleil or people see Japanese circus with their family for recreation. We have just three circuses that are Japanese: Kinoshita Circus, Happy Dream Circus, and Pop Circus. They are very popular and they inspire young artists to make circus more popular in Japan. But I want to introduce many kinds of circus because it is a diverse art form. When we produced nouveau circus in Japan from Belgium, France and Ukraine many young people saw these shows and were influenced by these performances. Some circus artists have started to make their own works with that influence showing. It’s very important to have outside influences to keep an art alive.
In Europe, especially in France, so many nouveau circuses are popping up with a few artists--maybe 3 or 4 people creating a one-hour show. They tend to present different ideas to the audience, somewhat like our theater. The circus in Japan has a really young audience and also young performers, so I think they will embrace this kind of circus. It will be a good project for the young people.
What do you think circus will be like in 20 years?
I don’t know exactly, but it will be changed because young artists now want to make a new kind of show so that the circus arts remain relevant and interesting. Many people incorporate dance and theater and it interests the younger generation.
What advice would you give a young person who is beginning in circus to have a good career?
I think I would tell them to see shows, not just circus, but theater and many kinds of performances. I think that is really important. It must be live performance, not only Youtube videos. It is essential to see it live in order to understand it better. The next thing is practice. Don’t stop practicing.
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Bio & links:
Kim Campbell is a circus and theatre critic and writer. She has written for Spectacle magazine, Circus Now, Circus Talk and was a resident for Circus Stories, Le Cirque Vu Par with En Piste in 2015 at the Montreal Completement Cirque Festival. She is the editor of American Circus Educators magazine, as well as a staff writer for the web publication Third Coast Review, where she writes about arts and culture. You can follow her frequent musings on circus via Twitter, Instagram or at Kimzyn Chronicles .
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