It’s funny what you notice when you look at a photograph.
When I first looked at this image of the maiko Manaha (center), Chisako (frame right), and Chiyoko (frame left) about to perform during Gion Matsuri, I didn’t see anything of note.
In my photography catalogue, I rated it three stars, which means nothing special. It’s in focus, the composition is fine, but there is nothing that stands out to me.
That was four years ago. I was looking through the photos from this dance performance at Gion Matsuri on July 16, 2012 because I wanted to write about a photo connected to July for this post and I had never published any of these photos before.
That was when this photo caught my eye, or more specifically, Chisako’s eyes caught my eyes. I had made this photograph at the exact moment Chisako was glancing at Manaha to see if it was time to start the performance.
I have always been fascinated by the fact that geiko and maiko seem to move in complete synchronicity when they are dancing.
I asked the geiko Yukako about this way back in 2008 when I interviewed her about her performance at Setsubun in 2007 for my book Geisha & Maiko of Kyoto: Beauty, Art, & Dance.
Yukako said then, “I follow the lead of the samisen. I don’t look at the other dancers, but I try to listen to the music. Where I have to stand up and sit down when there is no sound, then I look at the eldest onesan out of the corner of my eyes to follow what she does.”
Chisako is doing exactly what Yukako said in this photo. The three maiko were dancing to a recording, so there was no samisen accompaniment. Manaha was the senior maiko, so Chisako is waiting for Manaha to stand and the dance to begin.
Of course, my shutter speed for this image was 1/320 of a second, so I doubt any of the hundreds of people watching the three maiko even noticed Chisako’s glance. I certainly didn’t. My camera did, though.
Yesterday I was processing this photo when something else caught my eye. There seems to be a fourth maiko in the picture, and she is already dancing. You can see her shadow behind Manaha.
The ghost maiko’s head is even with Manaha’s left shoulder (frame right), and you can see her outstretched hand and the sleeve of her kimono to Manaha’s right (frame left).
I imagine the maiko spinning to a song only she can hear.
For those of you who know your history, you’ll remember that Gion Matsuri started because of a ghost. “In 869 a plague raged through the capital and the citizens of Kyoto believed the sickness was the vengeful act of an angry ghost,” writes Takashi Shimada in the book Kyoto Gion Matsuri Festival Photo Collection.
The emperor asked for prayers to be said at Yasaka Shrine and for 66 floats to be paraded through Kyoto, and the ghost was apparently appeased. Shimada adds the this became an annual event sometime around 970, still more than 1,000 years ago.
I don’t think the ghost maiko is a vengeful spirit, just a lonely maiko who loved dancing and who can’t let go of the flower and willow world.
I know the feeling.
2012 was the only year I photographed this dance performance, so I have no idea if the ghost maiko has appeared other years.
The next time I am walking through Gion late at night, I will check the shadows to see if I can spot her.
Who knows what I’ll find?