Remembering Bando Mitsusa: ‘Dancing Was Her Life’

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Bando Mitsusa with more than 140 of her students at Tule Lake in 1943. (jcalegacy.com)

Bando Mitsusa with more than 140 of her students at Tule Lake in 1943. (jcalegacy.com)

By LAUREN KAWANA, Nikkei West

Anyone who had the privilege of taking a dance class from Bando Mitsusa was familiar with her constant refrain of “one more time” — and knew very well that once would not be enough. They’d likely repeat the dance four, five or maybe ten more times before their teacher was ready to send them home for the day.

Dorothy Sachiko Yamamoto — known as Bando Mitsusa, a revered practitioner of odori (Japanese classical dance) — charmed thousands with her talents and amassed hundreds of devoted students from Los Angeles to San Jose throughout her career. She passed away July 18 at 94 years old and is survived by her daughter, Karen Kimura, her grandchildren, Adrienne Agena and Brandon Kimura, and four great-grandchildren.

“She meant business and was very serious as a teacher,” says Yamamoto’s granddaughter, Agena, who began learning to dance from her grandmother at the age of two. “It was always ‘One more time, one more time!’”

Agena has fond memories of her grandmother, who always dressed in kimono even for dance practice, rarely in “people clothes,” she says. When she was growing up, people would recognize Bando Mitsusa everywhere they went and treat her with the utmost respect. “I always called her our version of the Queen of England,” Agena says with a laugh. “She had that aura.”

Bando Mitsusa at Koyasan Buddhist Temple in Little Tokyo during a “Hidden Legacy” program in 2010.

Bando Mitsusa at Koyasan Buddhist Temple in Little Tokyo during a “Hidden Legacy” program in 2010.

But what Agena remembers most was her grandmother’s absolute devotion to her craft — characterized by an intense weekly routine of round-the-clock practices. “She would sleep until noon and she would go straight to the studio for lessons, back to back to back and not eat dinner until after 10 o’clock,” Agena says.

For years, Yamamoto taught out of her home in Los Angeles — in a two-car garage converted into a studio, practice stage and dressing room. Later in her career, she flew to San Jose to teach lessons every other week. She’d take a 2 p.m. flight on Friday, be teaching by 4 p.m., her granddaughter says, and continue teaching through the weekend until she returned home on Sunday night — for over 35 years.

“She really did it nonstop,” Agena says. Even Yamamoto’s husband Masao, who passed away in 1991, would cook meals for his wife, help her manage her kimonos and costumes, and drive her from place to place so that she could focus strictly on dance, sunup to sundown.

That dedication proved to be the driving force behind Bando Mitsusa’s achievements, which her family unquestioningly supported. Yamamoto was born to Sadaki and Chino Hori in Sacramento in 1919. Mesmerized by odori as a little girl, she joined a children’s kabuki performance group under the tutelage of Toku Yamamura. After seeing her perform, a teacher from Los Angeles recruited Yamamoto to join the Shojo Kabuki, or all-girls kabuki group, which went on tours through California, Hawaii and even Japan. Happy to please their only child, Yamamoto’s parents packed up and moved south so that their daughter could indulge in her passion on a larger scale.

In Los Angeles, Yamamoto studied under Bando Mitsumi from the Bando School in Tokyo. Through her teacher, she perfected the classical dances derived from the kabuki stage until she was ready to study under the master himself.

After graduating high school, Yamamoto traveled to Japan and trained under the head of the Bando School — Bando Mitsugoro VII, an esteemed kabuki actor and dancer whose family, now under Bando Mitsugoro X, maintains a longtime legacy.

Those years were “really rigorous, no play time,” says Karen Kimura, Yamamoto’s daughter, who was also trained by her mother. “It was strictly all about odori, 24-7, learning all the ins and outs and all the nuances.”

Yamamoto not only learned odori, but also to sing, chant and play instruments like the shamisen, flutes and drums. She learned to master female and male stage roles, to cry on cue, memorize long passages, and above all, understand what it meant to be disciplined.

After passing the necessary tests, she was given her stage name, Bando Mitsusa. Years later in 1957, she would be appointed the official U.S. delegate of the Bando School by Grand Master Bando Mitsugoro VII.

“’Til the day she died, she always said, ‘I could never quit teaching because I owe it to Mama for all that she did,’” Kimura says. “My grandmother had to send the tuition money to Japan every month. She really sacrificed a lot for my mom to be there.”

After returning home in 1941 and hoping to pass on what she had learned, Yamamoto was met by the outbreak of World War II, which eventually led to the internment of Japanese Americans in 1942. At 23, she was sent to Tule Lake.

During her years in camp, Yamamoto taught classical dance to over 100 students and directed performances using improvised props and costumes. This is now documented in “Hidden Legacy,” Shirley Muramoto’s recent film about traditional Japanese arts in the internment camps.

“They actually used dried turnips as a base and made paper-mache masks,” says Kimura. “And for wigs, they used twine and actually made it so fine to appear like hair and dyed it with shoe polish. They were amazingly clever.”

One of Yamamoto’s students, Nancy Shibata, continued her training beyond camp and became a natori, or credentialed dancer with a “stage title” qualification, bestowed the name of Bando Misaye. Based in Orange County, she is one of the few natori trained by Yamamoto who is teaching the art form.

Tragically, one of Yamamoto’s most promising protégés, Mary Arii Mah, (Bando Misayasu), who had taken over teaching at Yamamoto’s San Jose school ten years ago, passed away in January.

Kimura is another one of the 16 students who were credentialed by her mother, but like her, many of them have not continued on with the practice.

“The movements are intricate and refined,” says Kimura. “It’s something that you actually have to acquire a taste for to even appreciate. It’s like fine art. You can’t just walk into a gallery without knowing what you’re looking at.”

Kimura hopes to pick up the art once more, but says it would be impossible to come anywhere near the level of her mother.

“There were so many other teachers who kind of shoot from the hip, but my mom always stuck to the authentic and the true,” Kimura says. “I felt very good about what my mom did, her choreography, her costumes. It was never anything that was not authentic and I think that goes back to her rigid training.”

“She taught culture, she taught discipline, she expected a lot of her students,” adds Karen’s daughter. “Families all did so much to support her group but I think they knew they were getting more than just dance lessons.”

Many hours in Yamamoto’s studio may have been spent perfecting the way one twirled a fan, tilted one’s head, or bent one’s knees, but based on the outpouring of support Yamamoto’s family has received since her passing, it is clear a deeper legacy will be long remembered.

“We keep getting letters and phone calls and cards and notes from all her former students from many, many years ago thanking us for sharing her with them,” Agena says. “Dancing was the most important part of her life, but I don’t think she realized how much she was valued in the community. She’d truly be moved. She just did it because it was her calling.”

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