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Wednesday, Jan. 28, 2004

SHAKESPEARE GOES NATIVE

Nothing lost in Johnnys R+J translation


Special to The Japan Times

Since Shakespeare got through the notoriously long wait for foreigners at Japanese immigration and started to settle down and assimilate the local culture, what sort of changes have been wrought on him by his extended sojourn on these shores?

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A new staging of Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" by Johnnys Production Co., starring Noriyuki Higashiyama and Asaka Seto proves the pop-management company can do highbrowtheater as well.

Well, this month, at two venues around the top of the Yamanote Line loop, there's a chance to encounter Shakespeare in two rather different Japanese guises.

Nowadays, the name "Romeo" likely calls to mind for many people the name of pretty-boy soccer star David Beckham's youngest son. But before that, it only ever meant the handsome young Montague heir of Shakespeare's tragedy, who was involved in a pure but doomed love affair with Juliet, daughter of the rival Capulets.

Against that cultural shift, then, it is perhaps fitting that the new owners of the Tokyo Globe Theatre, Johnnys Production Co. -- the organization behind SMAP and countless other pretty-boy pop acts since the 1960s -- chose "Romeo and Juliet" to christen its new venture at this fine venue near JR Shin Okubo Station in Shinjuku Ward, Tokyo.

Since the shock acquisition by Johnnys in 2002 of the Tokyo branch of London's Globe Theatre, which had struggled with low attendances since 1988, theatergoers have waited with bated breath to see what would issue from this bizarre marriage of the highbrow and the populist.

Eyebrows were raised when Johnnys turned to television to promote its new enterprise. About a month ago Fuji TV ran a program in which this production's Romeo (Johnnys' own Noriyuki Higashiyama, a member of the pop group Shonentai) and Juliet (Asaka Seto, a TV actress and CM queen making her theater debut) were taken on a picturesque tour of London's Globe Theatre and the English countryside. This approach clearly worked because the theater was full and the audience was noticeably skewed toward women in their 20s and 30s -- some of whom could be heard in the interval talking about how this was their second or third trip to see their idol in his "gorgeous velvet costume."

Hype can fill a theater, but is Johnnys' "Romeo and Juliet" worth the fuss? The stage setting, as you enter, is certainly striking. The audience entrance is lined with flowers and the stage is strewn with blossoms. In the center of it stands a high bookshelf labeled (in Japanese) "Love story books fair." Browsers check the books, then, when one pulls out "Romeo and Juliet," the shelf falls back, the cast emerges and the play begins.

In Shakespeare's home country, "Romeo and Juliet" is one of his most frequently performed plays, but Japanese audiences are not often treated to straight stagings of the drama. More often it's encountered in ballet form, or as stripped-down "highlights" for small-scale stagings. This, however, is the real thing, simply but lucidly presented by leading director Shoji Kokami, with no concessions made to a populist target audience. It also boasts a modern new translation by Shoichiro Kawai, in contemporary Japanese and with rhymes and wordplay to mirror the original.

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"Kanadehon Hamlet" is a comedy about the highs and lows of Japan's first-ever production of ""Hamlet."

What's revealed is a tale of tortured love that feels up to the minute, despite the medieval sets and costumes. The story speeds along, never less than absorbing. However the highlight is undoubtedly -- and perhaps unexpectedly, at least for this critic -- Higashiyama's "Romeo." The young star brings a wealth of stage experience, dancing and singing and playing to auditoriums as large as Tokyo Dome, to his portrayal of a noble and pure young Romeo. His sheer energy and exuberance is captivating, as when he shins effortless up to the theater's second-floor balcony to embrace his love.

But this production is much more than simply a star turn. "Johnnys R+J" has been thought out down to the details, as when the rival families finally bury their differences along with their beloved children and old war newsreel footage is projected across the stage's backdrop -- followed by scenes from the invasion of Iraq. The message -- that cycles of conflict, if left unbroken, exact a terrible price from those involved -- couldn't be clearer.

There's no doubt on this evidence that the seemingly bizarre union of Johnnys and the Globe has the potential to enrich the Japanese entertainment world. Whether Johnnys could pull off "King Lear," or plays with a mainly female cast, remains to be seen, but there's plenty to applaud in this debut production that promises to revitalize a beautiful theater for a new, younger audience.

"Romeo and Juliet" runs till Feb. 7 at the Tokyo Globe Theater, a 10-minute walk from Shin Okubo Station on the JR Yamanote Line. For more details, call (03) 3366-4020 or (03) 3372-9574. The play then runs Feb. 21-25 at NHK Osaka Hall in Osaka; (06) 6233-8888. Tickets 6 yen,000-9,500 yen.

Just a couple of stops further east on the Yamanote Line there was a quite different take on Shakespeare playing at the Tokyo Arts theater in Ikebukuro last week. This "Kanadehon Hamlet" (lit. "Calligraphy-primer Hamlet") was first performed in 1992, then staged at the Tokyo Globe Theatre (then the Panasonic Globe Theatre) two years later, before short runs in both New York and London.

Set in the Meiji Era (1868-1912), this is not a translation of "Hamlet" but a fascinating, fictional -- and comical -- story about the time when Shakespeare plays were first staged in Japan and the confusion experienced by the actors, largely from the world of kabuki, as they tried to grasp what Western drama was about.

It is 1897, and at the Shintomi-za kabuki theater in Tokyo a daring, artistically minded producer named Kanya Morita (Katsumi Kiba) is preparing to stage "Hamlet" for the first time in Japan. (Historically, the first Shakespeare play presented professionally in Japan was "The Merchant of Venice" at Osaka Ebisu theater in 1885).

We are treated to the sight of erstwhile kabuki actors wrestling hilariously with both the concept and then the practice of Western realist acting. During rehearsals, the star (Hiroshi Murakami) will insist on trying to strike a formal mie pose as he delivers Hamlet's famed monologues. Then there's a big squabble when the director and actors argue over their samurai-style topknots -- which he wants cut and they refuse to lose (in a compromise the actors wear their hair loose).

And as for "To be or not to be," well, the actors want it cut altogether. They've spent their lives immersed in the samurai spirit of Bushido, and fail to see how anyone worth a hero's role could hesitate over such a straightforward matter of adauchi (revenge) in an honorable cause.

Then, with matters approaching a humorous resolution, as the actors are coaxed and coached through all these culture clashes, the play concludes with a quirky twist. Just as the opening night approaches, Morita's finances collapse and all comes to nought. And so there's a moral in this tale, as well as great entertainment: It's no good having a vision unless you lay the groundwork well and ensure the means to realize it, too.

"Kanadehon Hamlet" by Kiyama Theatre plays at the Meyerhold Theatre in Moscow, Feb. 19-22. For details of future Kiyama Theatre Productions, call (03) 5958-085.


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