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Wednesday, June 27, 2001

Noda weaves another fantastical web


Hideki Noda, head of the cutting-edge theater company Noda Map, wrote and directs its latest production, "Nisesaku: Sakura no Mori no Mankai no Shita (A Fake: Under the Cherry Trees in Full Bloom)." He also acts, as the King of Hida, often running with all his considerable force along the sakura-draped 36-meter-deep stage.

The play's hero Mimio (Shin'ichi Tsutsumi) encounters beguiling Princess Yonaga (Eri Fukatsu) in moods as different as the stage's gorgeous settings.

Still only 45, Noda has been sprinting ahead as leader of the contemporary Japanese theater scene for more than 20 years, and this play, first staged 12 years ago by his previous company, Yumeno Yuminsha, is one of many to have confirmed that position. Two years ago, his award-winning "Pandora's Bell" further widened his audience despite, or perhaps because of, its uncompromising exploration of Japanese responsibility for World War II, which pointed to the dictatorial military leaders, but also the ordinary people who just fell in line.

Four years after Yumeno Yuminsha's first critically acclaimed production of "Sakura," Noda dissolved the company and went to London, where he spent a year absorbing Western theatrical method and essence. Since returning to Tokyo in 1994 and forming Noda Map, he has been working at an awesome rate, staging one or two original plays each year.

In his latest, lavish production of "Sakura" at the New National Theater, Noda is joined by an illustrious cast that includes Shin'ichi Tsutsumi as the hero Mimio and Eri Fukatsu as Princess Yonaga. The central characters are all seemingly chasing their own goal in life: For Mimio, this is art; for Princess Yonaga it is love; and for Oama (Masato Irie) it is to create a Utopian society.

The long stage itself functions as a bridge between real and fantasy worlds, a bridge to enter this beautiful fable. But as in Aesop or Grimm, there's a darker side as lofty ideals become distorted. As one of the lines cautions, under the beautiful cherry blossom that bedecks the stage, "hundreds of bodies are buried."

Riddles of meaning

Despite their ideals and colorful costumes, the principals similarly betray a shadowy side -- or perhaps the true nature of humanity shows through.

This sense of there being "no rose without a thorn" pervades the whole story, so that we see Princess Yonaga's innocent smiling face covered at times by the mask of a female demon (hannya), reminding us that behind the beautiful, fantastical surface lurk more worldly traits.

One of the great joys of a Noda play is searching out these riddles of meaning from the complex puzzle of the story, though each person may well find their own meanings there. To some, for instance, this play may appear as a Japanese "Salome"; for others, a love story about an innocent girl; yet others may interpret it as a tale of an emerging artist, Mimio, amid life's slings and arrows . . . or a tale about art itself.

But if it helps, the story goes something like this: The King of Hida summons three master sculptors to compete to carve a Buddhist statue as a 16th-birthday present for his daughters Hayane (Kotomi Kyono), who like Odette is awake during daytime, and Yonaga, who, Odile-like, lives by night. But nothing is what it seems, and the three who arrive are not the three who were summoned. Mimio is taken to Hida's kingdom by mistake after killing his master in self-defense when the old man became crazed by the beauty of the cherry blossoms. Manako (Arata Furuta), the symbolic philistine, was a bandit who killed the sculptor he is mistaken for in a robbery, and Oama is feigning a sculptor's skills to plot a coup d'etat in pursuit of his Utopian dream.

When the three have finished their work, Mimio's masterpiece wins, but Oama succeeds in his coup d'etat and Manako remains a philistine. After the king is overthrown, the top dogs and underdogs reverse roles, and Mimio is ordered into exile as a traitor. But on his way, he meets the jinx-like Princess Yonaga in a mysterious cherry-blossom forest, and has to make an unavoidable life decision . . .

After seven years' hard work in the Japanese theater scene, Noda is now planning to take another break and return to London to work with director Simon McBurney at his acclaimed avant-garde Theatre de Complicite company. Though he will be away, he certainly won't be forgotten, and his trip augurs some interesting collaborations with London-based actors. As the saying goes: Watch this space.

The play runs until June 30 at the New National Theater, near Hatsudai Station on the Keio Line. For reservations call the box office, (03) 5352-9999 (10 a.m.-6 p.m.)


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