August 6, 2003


Marutama-ya Fireworks Still Breathing Life into Edo Period Technology

* This article is under copyright protection.

Manabu Akaike
Universal Design Intelligence Inc.

Zero Emissions Products Using Discarded Materials

The invention of the black gunpowder used in fireworks goes all the way back to China's Western Han period (206 BC to 8 AD). The Japanese were formally introduced to gunpowder in the late 13th century when China attacked Japan. It is recorded subsequently that in 1543 when firearms were first brought to Tanegashima Island, Lord Tokitaka ordered two of his retainers to learn the methods of making firearms and gunpowder. But it is possible that the technique for making gunpowder was already in Japan by the 12th century, and was possibly used by ninja for noroshi signal flares and land mine type explosives.

However, when the land of Japan was united under Tokugawa leyasu in the early 17th century, both swords and explosives were put under the strict control of the shogunate. Agrarian troops and artisans who had dabbled in gunpowder lost their positions, so the art of explosives began to spread among the townspeople and the mountain villages. One of those hanabi ("fireflowers" or fireworks) artisans was known as Yahei of Kagi-ya. Six generations later, a branch known as Tama-ya split off from the Kagi-ya establishment, and so began the great rivalry between the Kagi-ya and Tama-ya in the art of spectator fireworks.

It is assumed that fireworks in those days appeared in the naturally occurring colors of flames. But the arrival of chemicals imported from Europe in the mid 19th century brought about the appearance of ingeniously designed colored fireworks. In Tokyo and the surrounding area with its rich history of fireworks, a number of traditional fireworks makers besides Kagi-ya continue today to advance the technology of the old Edo fireworks in a variety of ways, while still remaining involved with the manufacture and staging of fireworks shows.

Did you know that the firework shell that opens out in a 360 degree round shape that is so familiar here is in fact an original design, unique to Japan? Since Western fireworks are made by stuffing just one finished powder into a simple "star" that has been cut into a dice shape, the firework does not open out 360 degrees but only up and down. Fireworks in the West originally developed as an amusement for the upper classes.

Displays were generally valued for their dynamism more than their design, with a large number of simply colored and simply shaped fireworks used in a kind of strategy of volume, mass-produced for mass consumption. In contrast, Japanese fireworks are in a different world, intricately crafted and intended to be appreciated one by one. The reason for the difference lies in the history of the development of Japanese fireworks, which was mainly supported by the common folk, whose sensibility lay more toward the enjoyment of the beauty of flowers like the chrysanthemum and peony.

Furthermore, when we trace the manufacturing process, we find that all the materials used to make fireworks in Japan are surplus or discarded materials from the agricultural life. From the nitric acid derived from manure to the rice hulls used to buffer the flash powder, to the grass seed used to make the wick for the star and the paste made from grain residue that is used to make the cases and the stars. And to the handcrafted paper made from other discarded items that is used to wrap the shells this is truly a zero emissions product formed by recirculating the materials of the regional enocomy.

A Traditional Art Evolving by Computer

The beauty of the 360-degree blossoms of Japanese fireworks has swept the world and has become the global standard for the fireworks show. However, though Japan had represented 80% of the world's fireworks production, that role is gradually being taken over by China. In response to that trend and in the process of searching for ever enhanced aesthetic values, Japanese fireworks makers will create a new market by putting rocket propellant or micro-capsules containing advanced illuminating, sound-making, coloring and even perfuming substances into the gunpowder in order to bring out even more spectacular colors, sounds and light. The industry is also using computer graphics and computer technicians to advance demonstration technology.

When I visited Marutama-ya, I found the leader of the fireworks industry engaged in all manner of presentation and proposal activity toward potential sponsors of the great Japanese fireworks shows. Using 3D placement of the explosive star within the shell, they were able to express a multitude of shapes and transformations, such as playing cards, UFOs, Pikachu and Hello Kitty! Obviously the tradition of skilled fireworks design that has grown and developed since the Edo period is still breathing life into these more figurative designs.
Marutama-ya is also working on music synchronization and is developing a variety of performance technologies. They can calculate the level of synchronicity achievable within the specific geographica1 limitations, event scale and budget, in order to produce the most entertaining event possible.

Planning fireworks shows requires a certain level of scripting, and the company uses software and computer systems developed specifically for this purpose, including some items known as "Field Controller" and "Super script." Perhaps soon we will see the fireworks industry advertising in the classified ads for system engineers.

Just as many years ago fireworks were exploded over water so as to catch the reflections in the river surface, today shows are sometimes staged in the mountains so that the green of the trees can be projected by the fire. The traditional art of devising the most magical show within the confines of staging parameters can now be lent a hand by computers in order to achieve even greater advances.

JAPAN CLOSE-UP, April 2002, published by PHP

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