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Sunday, Aug. 4, 2002

Touched by the hand of the fire god

Staff writer

Akiko Amano says she once saw the God of Fire. It was around 10 years ago when she first started working as a hanabishi (professional fireworks setter). That night, she was working at a countryside fireworks festival.

The opening ceremony took a little longer than scheduled, delaying the start of the fireworks display. As she made her final checks on the wiring, she stopped by a bank of cylinders for launching "starmines" -- a type of firework shot off in rapid succession through 12-cm-diameter cylinders.

Moments after she completed her check, more than 100 of the fireworks were shot with a roar to a height of some 120 meters by the electronic firing system, controlled by other fireworks setters who assumed nobody was around. Amano was just 10 meters from the cylinders.

News photo
Akiko Amano, the 15th-generation head of Soke Hanabi Kagiya Co., with inscribed fireworks

At fireworks shows, the general public is prohibited from entering an area several hundred meters in radius from the shooting cylinders. Recently, to assure safety, even fireworks setters use an electronic firing system, which is operated from a distance of more than 100 meters.

Amano covered her ears and laid down. Dreadfully shocked, she wondered what would happen if any of the cylinders misfired and asked herself how she might get someone to halt the firing of the remaining fireworks.

Fortunately the cylinders remained standing and she was safe.

"I felt so shocked and frightened at the sudden shooting," Amano recalled.

"At the same time, I realized that no one can stop fireworks once they've been fired. Fireworks are like living things," she said. "And I had a strong sense that the God of Fire was there, in the fireworks. I realized that I was working in a sacred place."

But Amano's love affair with fireworks began long before her encounter with the God of Fire. Born into the family that owns Japan's oldest fireworks company, the 340-year-old Soke Hanabi Kagiya Co., she was only 8 years old when she decided the family business would be her life. After graduating university, she worked for two years for a fireworks maker in Yamanashi Prefecture. And in January 2000, she succeeded her father and became the 15th-generation director of Kagiya.

Today, she designs and produces shows of more than 10,000 fireworks, that require a staff of 130 people. Even if you're not familiar with the history of fireworks in Japan, you may have heard the name of Kagiya being shouted by spectators at firework events. "Kagiya!" and "Tamaya!" -- the latter a fireworks house that branched from Kagiya in 1808 -- have become traditional cries of excitement and approval as pyrotechnics go up.

That long tradition gives the 31-year-old Amano much to live up to. What's more, she is a woman heading a company in an area that, because of the dangers of dealing with gunpowder, has traditionally been a male preserve.

Her inspiration was her father, Osamu Amano, the 14th director of Kagiya. Now the company president, Osamu has made a major change in the old house's tradition by abandoning the manufacture of fireworks to focus, instead, on the design and staging of fireworks shows.

Amano believes that her father's shift in emphasis is in tune with the changing times: "In the past, we could shoot bigger fireworks in many combinations because there were usually fewer houses around the site. But recently we have to consider how to combine smaller fireworks to create an effect that is still beautiful and impressive. That is why the planning and designing of shows has become more important."

Creating the events of one night takes months of preparation. Amano meets with fireworks manufacturers and show organizers, prepares show designs by computer and secures authorization from local fire departments and other authorities. And there are always a few sleepless nights spent worrying about fine details and safety precautions.

When Amano is present at a show that she's designed herself, she judges the right moment to shoot each set of fireworks by carefully watching the reactions of spectators. A 75-minute show is as carefully paced to hold the audience's attention as a well-choreographed play, she says.

"Seventy-five minutes is just the right length. A show should end leaving audiences feeling they want to see a little more."

And as people are still enjoying the afterglow of the last fireworks, perhaps hoping that just one more might be fired, Amano is already planning the next show in her mind.

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