The Missouri Botanical Garden's annual Japanese Festival is a smorgasbord of fun things to do, with candlelight walks through the Japanese Garden, loincloth-clad taiko drummers pounding giant drums, sales of tempura, calligraphy demos and so on. For many, however, the most surprising and entertaining part of the party is the Candy Man.
The Candy Man is Masaji Terasawa, whose titular skill is sculpting such shapes as dragons, dolphins and horses from pliable rice toffee. It's not the candy-sculpting, per se, that makes his act so magnetic, though.
The Candy Man's act begins so subtly that it could be classified as performance art. He starts by cutting a piece of paper in the shape of an animal, and people naturally start to gather around him. Passers-by stop and stare at this kimono-clad man and the nearby jury-rigged wooden cart that holds his tools. What's going on here? Is this funny-looking fellow "official," or is he some sort of marginal busker who's invited himself to the festival? And what is he doing?
The crowd grows. Terasawa finishes his paper donkey. Changing gears, he balances a ball on the tip of an umbrella. People clap. The crowd continues to grow around him. Then he begins to sculpt his first piece, walking in a little circle, not speaking, working quickly with a small metal tool. He gives the candy away to a lucky onlooker, often a child.
Terasawa challenges a man to split a wooden chopstick with a piece of paper -- naturally, the Candy Man is the only one who knows how it's done. He spins a giant top along the blade of a samurai sword. He folds origami and places a miniature bull on a child's head, knocking it off with a Chinese yo-yo. He finds a woman in the circle of humanity around him who is not strictly paying attention to the show and gently kicks her in the butt, moving away so she isn't sure who kicked her. The crowd laughs its approval.
Through it all, his boom box plays traditional Japanese music and he makes lots of little jokes in a thickly accented voice. He is a ball of energy, walking at a good clip in a circle while sculpting candy or moving so quickly through some stunt that you wonder how many more bizarre props and tricks have yet to emerge from his homemade cart of curiosities.
The Candy Man didn't become the Candy Man by accident. He began as a street performer in Tokyo about twenty years ago and spent fourteen years refining his show at Disney World's EPCOT Center. He says he began by performing for "25 to 30 people in Japan, but now I can perform for a thousand people around me."
The Candy Man's act escalates from ambiguous beginning to smile-inducing stunt to comedy to wonder to a concluding sense that you've just witnessed something, well -- shit, the word "magical" simply has to used here. If nothing else, you can tell your friends that you've actually seen performance art that not only didn't suck but was stellar.