Kite-to-kite combat is high entertainment at annual festival Strings Attached

April 29, 1995|By Steve McKerrow | Steve McKerrow,Sun Staff Writer

Ahh, the perfect spring image: High against a blue sky, kites dance gently on the wind, bearing colorful paintings or striking graphic designs.

Suddenly, they begin swirling and slashing, each trying to drag others to the ground or cut them free to float away downwind. Finally, one victor remains flying.

Kite combat?

Such aerial aggression actually reaches back centuries in Asia, ancient birthplace of the kite. Its most spectacular form may be found in Japan, where entire villages engage annually in benign conflict with huge, six-sided fliers known as "rokkaku" kites.

A Westernized version of that Japanese tradition will be part of the 29th Annual Maryland Kite Festival, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Hammerman Area of Gunpowder Falls State Park in Chase. The event also features a variety of demonstration and participatory activities involving wind-borne flying machines.

"I would call this a demonstration of a variety of kinds of kites, very much a fun fly," says festival chairman Jon Burkhardt, a Bethesda kite maker and a past president of the Maryland Kite Society, sponsor of the event.

Anyone who attends is invited to bring kites and join the uplifting event, for a "mass ascension" is planned shortly after the 10 a.m. start time. Festival officials will count the kites flying at one time for comparison with previous festivals and similar events elsewhere.

At times, kites fitted with special devices will drop small teddy bears to the ground for youngsters to catch, and enthusiasts of "sport kites" will demonstrate the relatively recent evolution of the flying form. With dual or quadruple lines, these kites perform spectacular aerobatics, often in teamwork choreographed to music accompaniment.

And then there's the Rokkaku Kite Challenge, scheduled sometime in mid-afternoon, says Mr. Burkhardt.

Up to 10 kites may participate, representing a number of kite clubs in Maryland and surrounding states. The beautiful kites measure up to eight feet from top to bottom, require multiple handlers and are made of sturdy nylon and fiberglass so they can fly another day.

"But the rules are that the kites fight and the contestants do not," Mr. Burkhardt jokes.

To maneuver the large kites up and down and laterally, handlers race about the flying field in semi-coordinated patterns at the command of one chief pilot. Tactics include sawing through opponents' flying line with your own or "tipping" another kite with your line, forcing it to crash.

In a typical battle, spectators are invited to lend a hand with the flying lines or to take up position downwind to recover cut kites.

"It's a lot of fun, but it does get hectic," says the festival chairman.

Rokkaku battles have become a popular attraction of U.S. kite festivals in the past decade. Last month's annual Smithsonian Kite Festival on The Mall in Washington, for example, saw one of the largest such combats so far, with 39 kites tangling in the air.

"It was Bevan Brown who first proposed it, from the Japanese tradition, of course," says Valerie Govig, editor of Kite Lines magazine, an internationally circulated quarterly for kite enthusiasts that is published in Randallstown.

Mr. Brown, of Burtonsville, a former Maryland Kite Society president, was inspired by seeing a video of a Japanese rokkaku battle, according to "The Complete Rokkaku Kite Chronicles and Training Manual," a booklet for enthusiasts published by Kite Lines.

The first recorded modern battle was at a convention of the American Kitefliers Association in 1983 in Columbus, Ohio, with several kites and impromptu teams. Since then, the event has taken off.

"We all thought, This'll be fun for a year, and then we'll do something else.' But it's amazing how it's grown," says Ms. Govig, a founding member of an all-female rokkaku team called the Mama-sans.

Teams adopt Japanese-style jackets with club logos and other ceremonial trappings, in salute to the roots of the activity.

Individual combat with small, darting kites -- often flown on lines coated with ground glass to facilitate cutting down opponents -- has been practiced for centuries in India, Korea, Japan and even Brazil.

Legend suggests the origins of the giant kite battles of Japan reach back about 300 years, according to Tal Streeter, author of "The Art of the Japanese Kite" (Weatherhill, $23.95).

In his book, he relates the traditions of an area near the city of Shirone, where an irrigation canal divides two villages. Every June, work stops for a kite festival, in which large rokkaku kites of paper and bamboo cane -- many bearing hand-painted artwork depicting samurai warriors and including monster kites up to 20 feet tall -- are launched from opposing sides of the canal.

One legend recalls that residents of one side of the canal were much poorer than those on the other, and conflict often resulted. A ruler named Lord Mizoguchi "suggested kite fighting as a substitute for street fighting," Mr. Streeter writes.

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