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Wednesday, June 15, 2005


A new cherry for a new theater

Special to The Japan Times

Theatre Cocoon in Shibuya is renowned for staging some of the best contemporary drama in Japan, whether from established masters such as Yukio Ninagawa and Hideki Noda, or young blades like Suzuki Matsuo.

News photo
Seigen (Hashinosuke Nakamura) with Sakurahime (Fukusuke Nakamura) and Gonsuke (also played by Hashinosuke Nakamura) with Sakurahime
News photo

Eleven years ago, however, this vibrant company, based in the spacious Bunkamura complex, set itself another quite distinct, if not entirely unrelated challenge -- to liberate ultra-traditional classical kabuki from its elitist straightjacket and make it as accessible and attractive to the general public as its other productions there.

Back then, when Theatre Cocoon first put on a spectacular version of the famous ghost story "Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan (Yotsuya Ghost Story)" with star kabuki actor Kankuro Nakamura, since awarded the name of Kanzaburo, playing the lead, the classical-contemporary crossover was nothing short of a sensation.

Since then, there have been four more sumptuous and spectacular kabuki stagings there. But now, with "Sakurahime (Cherry Blossom Princess)" currently the sixth production, the sheer novelty factor may have gone, but the challenge is clearly ongoing, since here the ever-innovative company has shifted the focus again, this time away from visual spectacle and onto pared down sets that throw the focus on the dramatic narrative and quality of acting instead.

The director, 62-year-old Kazuyoshi Kushida, a leading contemporary dramatist who was Theatre Cocoon's first artistic director (1989-96), and is now in that role at the Matsumoto Performing Arts Centre, says just that.

News photo
Gonsuke and Sakurahime

Stressing that here his aim was to re-examine Theatre Cocoon's approach to kabuki, he says he views the continuing challenge as being to ensure that this approach becomes a kind of tradition of its own that will take root in Japanese theater history. He explains that he is striving for newer ways to marry the classical and contemporary in order to make kabuki relevant to audiences today. The result, with the all-male classically trained actors and their beguiling techniques parachuted into the modern stage, is a challenge to traditionalists but also to the offspring of the Heisei era in Shibuya -- those teenagers who are leading self-centered sex-driven lives.

The challenges to regular kabuki-goers are immediately apparent due to the absence of a hanamichi (runway) from the stage out into the stalls, and the replacement of traditional striped curtains with huge, beautifully painted ones by Akira Uno of the actor.

As the play begins, you may be surprised to see an actor, Naoyuki Asahina, appear on top of a moving tower and begin to explain the complicated plot -- a feature that is blended quite naturally throughout the play, so the audience has no need to read the program notes hurriedly or to use their headphones to know what is going on.

The play is a sorry tale of a well-born woman, Sakurahime (Fukusuke Nakamura), who descends -- via a nightmarish landscape of rape, multiple affairs, bewitchings, murders and an attempted infanticide -- to the level of a common prostitute.

Meanwhile the venerable monk Seigen (Hashinosuke Nakamura), who has taken the cloth after surviving an attempted double suicide with his boy lover, succumbs to the delusion she is the reincarnation of his boyfriend.

When Sakurahime's rapist, Gonsuke (Hashinosuke Nakamura), reappears on the scene and she and they get together as lovers, sad Seigen, who has by now lost everything in pursuit of his romantic dream, is rewarded yet again . . . this time at the hands of his enchantress Sakurahime.

To tell this tale, whose twists and turns are only hinted at above, Kushida opts for an open stage with minimal sets and little decoration other than hanging, painted curtains and a backcloth of cherry blossoms for the final scene. As a result, however, it is as if he has extracted the essence of this kabuki drama and recast it as if for a public playhouse (where it would, in the Edo Period, have originally been staged) rather than the rarefied surroundings in which it is now normally found.

By making the most of the classical actors' formidable talents, Kushida magnificently returns the focus of this cautionary tale by Nanboku Tsuruya (1755-1829) to the carnal immediacy with which it was first invested, so striking a very modern chord -- which is appropriate because the theater is located in Shibuya.

When I saw this play on its second night here, there was still scope for improvement on stage -- both in terms of the actors' diction and the editing of this amazingly complex plot. Nonetheless it is unmissably brave -- a groundbreaking piece of entertainment and it continues to take up the challenge that Theatre Cocoon set itself back in 1994.

"Sakurahime (Cherry Blossom Princess)" runs till June 26 at the Theatre Cocoon, an 8-minute walk from JR Shibuya Station. For more details, call, the Theatre Cocoon on (03) 3477-9999 or visit www.bunkamura.co.jp Call Shochiku on (03) 5565-6000 or visit www.ticket-web-shochiku.com

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