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Saturday, October 29, 2005

Tricks are the treat in Tokyo

Kevin Wood / Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer

With Halloween drawing near, thoughts turn to witches, sorcery, ghosts, and unexplained phenomena. What better way to put oneself in the mood for the holiday than with a little magic? Japan has its share of ghost stories, and fortune-tellers can be found on any corner. But tricks are the latest treat in Tokyo, home to a thriving community of illusionists, conjurors, prestidigitators and sleight-of-hand artists.

The nation is experiencing a magic boom with an increasing number of stage magicians appearing on television, and more and more tricks for amateurs appearing on department store and specialty shop shelves.
One such shop is Magic Land, near Hatchobori Station in Tokyo, an overflowing third-floor treasure trove of tricks, apparatuses and books that hosts lectures by visiting magicians and performances of close-up magic. Magic Land and its proprietor, Ton Onosaka, are the hub around which Tokyo's magic scene turns.

Onosaka, 72, has been practicing magic for about 60 years and opened the shop 25 years ago, around the time he retired from his day job with the Tokyo metropolitan government. Ton's wife, Setsuko, herself a formidable magician, and his son, Satoshi, take care of day-to-day operations while Ton applies his considerable talents to creating new tricks and keeping in touch with his far-flung network of magic practitioners.

The Onosakas attend magic conventions around the world. Ton was instrumental in helping produce the biggest international gatherings of magicians in Japan and is often called upon for advice on the production of television and stage shows. A gifted artist with a pencil as well as a wand, Onosaka has illustrated so many magic instruction books in Japan and abroad that he has lost count of the number.

With his gray beard and full, long, flowing hair, Onosaka looks like a Japanese version of Harry Potter's headmaster, Albus Dumbledore.
Speaking with The Daily Yomiuri days after returning from the inaugural conference of the Asia Magicians Association in Thailand, Onosaka brims with enthusiasm about the Tokyo magic scene.

"Magic is starting to sprout in Japan, it is really starting to grow," Onosaka says, pointing to the rising number of young hobbyists taking up the art, the proliferation of paraphernalia in non-specialty stores and the burgeoning magic bar and restaurant scene, with more than 20 such establishments in the greater Tokyo area.

Among the top venues in Tokyo is Usagiya. A traditional three-story structure tucked away next to Jodoji temple off busy Hitotsugi street in Akasaka, Usagiya features close-up magic shows in the first floor bar and restaurant at 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. for a relatively inexpensive 2,000 yen seating charge, and table magic in its second floor hostess club for an additional charge, with stage magic performed on Saturday nights.

Usagiya has a stable of about 12 professional magicians working in rotation, with two performers producing selected cards from unlikely places and lighting cigarettes with flaming wallets at tableside, but all the staff are ready and able to perform a few simple tricks of their own.
Ninja, next to the nearby Akasaka Excel Hotel Tokyu, offers table magic with dinner, as does Trattoria Gioia, one of several places in Ginza featuring magic entertainment.

Shingo, the in-house magician at Magic Bar Issey near Roppongi Crossing, says he prefers the younger crowds in Roppongi because they have a better sense of humor. Like Onosaka, he was bitten by the magic bug as boy when he saw a magician demonstrating tricks for sale in a department store. Now 22, he has been a working pro for three years.
One of the few resident foreign magicians in Tokyo, 40-year-old Steve Marshall, "The Ambassador of Magic from the USA," has been performing in Tokyo and across the country for seven years, including three years at Tokyo Disneyland and previous stints at Huis Ten Bosch theme park in Sasebo, Nagasaki Prefecture, and Disney World in Orlando, Fla. While he now most often performs at corporate events and VIP parties, he also enjoys doing occasional bar work.

"I love that bar environment. I love that close-up one-on-one because I get to see the amazement in their eyes, that moment of astonishment," said Marshall, a 20-year stage veteran.

Like Shingo, Marshall injects humor into his act, a product of his five years as a clown with the Ringling Bros. Circus in the United States and Japan. He often performs at the Tokyo Comedy Store (www.tokyocomedy.com) in both Japanese and English.

Marshall said he polishes his skills "anytime, anywhere," regularly drawing surprised smiles from shop clerks by making his change vanish. "I always have a deck of cards with me and usually a half dollar or some other coins and I'll practice moves sitting on the train," said Marshall, adding he often gets so focused on his rehearsals that he will suddenly look up to find all the other passengers staring at him in amazement.

Rising star Cyril is now working on his eighth two-hour TV special in Tokyo, to be aired in January, and plans to tour major hotels in Japan with a dinner show in December. Raised in Hollywood by his French-Moroccan mother and Okinawan father, Cyril got his first taste of magic at 7 when friends of his parents snuck him into a Las Vegas revue. He claims to remember only two things--the cavalcade of topless showgirls and the "sorcerer."

"I use the word 'sorcerer' because at the time, I knew nothing about tricks or secrets. Everything I witnessed that night was pure and true magic...The magic was such a real experience for me that I remember months of sleepless nights trying to stay up in bed trying to figure out how to move, vanish or transform a random object in my bedroom," Cyril said. "I didn't care about finding out Santa was not real, but when they told me that magic wasn't real, I just couldn't believe it. I was devastated."

Cyril says the resurgence of magic in Japan is good for performers artistically as well as commercially. "The [Japanese] audience is much more educated and knowledgeable in magic. This, of course, makes it more challenging to stimulate them. We, as magicians, must find new themes, techniques, methods, effects and magical approaches to keep our Nihonjin viewers in awe," he said.

Tokyo's professional prestidigitators are backed by a formidable crowd of dedicated part-timers and amateurs. Shigeru Tashiro is president of the Japan Close-Up Magicians Association (www.jcma.net) and one of the founders of Magic Circle Japan (MCJ), a loose affiliation of conjurors of all skill levels who meet monthly in Ikebukuro to swap illusions, show off their technique and teach younger hobbyists the tricks of the trade. Shigeru says the meetings draw between 40 and 60 people a month who pay a nominal fee to cover costs. To encourage younger attendees, meetings are free for those under 18.

Onosaka endorses MCJ's efforts, saying it's important for kids to find good teachers. More important is the sense of community such groups provide. Onosaka has spent most of his life in the brotherhood of magicians and has friends scattered across the globe. He says his specialty isn't card tricks or pulling rabbits from hats--it's making "magic friends."
(The Daily Yomiuri Oct. 29, 2005)

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