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Friday, June 16, 2000

A ghost brings actress back into the spotlight

Staff writer

"I was deeply impressed by the beauty of the words," says actress Keiko Matsuzaka, 47, breathless with enthusiasm as she talks about the play she's producing: "Tenshu Monogatari."

The award-winning actress says she was enchanted by Tamasaburo Bando's production of Kyoka Izumi's novel "Tenshu Monogatari" when she saw it 10 years ago. She immediately bought the novel and read it repeatedly, touched by the author's compassion for the weak and suffering.

Written in 1917, "Tenshu Monogatari" is the tragic story of a love affair between the ghost Tomihime, who haunts the tower of Himeji Castle, and a warrior, Zushonosuke. Izumi (1873-1939) depicted a unique world, full of poetic fantasy and illusion, making it an especially difficult piece to dramatize. It deterred all but Tamasaburo, and later Matsuzaka, who took up the project last year.

Matsuzaka's acting career was put on the back burner after her marriage in 1991 to Haruhiko Takauchi, a Japanese musician based in New York, and the birth of their two daughters. Last summer, however, after deciding that her children were old enough for her to resume her career fully, she began looking for an acting project she could undertake on her own terms.

"Tenshu Monogatari" immediately sprang to mind. At first, she tried to find someone to produce the work for her, but no one was interested, no doubt because of the difficulties involved in staging the piece and the daunting challenge of topping Tamasaburo's success. However, Matsuzaka had her heart set on it and bravely decided to break new ground in her career by producing it herself.

Wanting the best possible team, she approached composer Kei Ogura and actors Yoneko Matsukane and Masanobu Takashima, all of whom agreed to take part. Impressed by Takashima's reading sessions, she opted to make the production a recitation, with music performed by Chiho Tosha on narimono and American Curtis Patterson on koto.

According to Matsuzaka, the camaraderie that developed among the cast and staff is precisely what makes the production a success.

"These people have come together like classmates from school, regardless of their professional status, sharing their earnestness and passion for the performance. I hope we can share that with the audience, too," she says.

Matsuzaka hopes to convey the book's magical atmosphere through the dialogue and Ogura's beautiful music. "I want the audience to feel a certain warmth through the performance. I want them to feel as if they're listening to a fairy tale they heard in childhood," she says.

"As a Japanese actress looking from my own point of view and adding my own interpretation, I want to express the beauty and originality of Japan today through my performance," she adds with a smile.

But the road to open communication and expression was not an easy one.

Matsuzaka made her acting debut at the age of 14, and for many years after she simply followed the instructions of directors, making no attempt to develop her own acting style.

However, working on the movie "Shi no Toge" with director Kohei Oguri was a turning point. During the filming of the movie, which won a Grand Prix at the 1990 Cannes Film Festival, Oguri encouraged Matsuzaka to think about and develop her character from her own point of view, which helped her gain confidence as an actress. But this still wasn't enough for her to feel completely at ease with the people she worked with.

For years, the actress felt she had no true friends and no one she could really trust or communicate with. When she and her husband moved to New York, though, all that changed.

Many people, mainly in the theater world, helped her out when she didn't know the language or customs, and she felt that there was real understanding between people and a lack of prejudice.

Her experience in New York inspired her to communicate with audiences of varying nationality and background through theater, and she plans to tour "Tenshu Monogatari" internationally in the future. For now, though, Matsuzaka is content to be back in the limelight full-time and bringing a story she loves to life on the stage once again.

"Tenshu Monogatari" will be performed June 19-20 at Suntory Hall. For tickets and more information, call CAN at (03) 5457-3163.

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