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Wednesday, July 20, 2005


Shock & awe: hotshots wow Shibuya

Special to The Japan Times

Two leading contenders to the throne of the contemporary drama world, now long occupied by Yukio Ninagawa, are certainly Suzuki Matsuo, 42, founder of the Otona Keikaku theater company, and the Asagaya Spiders' 30-year-old founder, Keishi Nagatsuka. Currently both of these rising stars happen to be staking their respective claims on amazingly high-quality productions in the heart of Tokyo's Shibuya.

News photo
The heroine Kegare, played by Ranran Suzuki (center) in the current revival of Suzuki Matsuo's "Kirei (Beauty)," leads the cast in one of the megahit musical's many powerful numbers. PHOTO COURTESY OF THEATRE COCOON.

Matsuo is returning to Theatre Cocoon with the megahit musical "Kirei (Beauty)," which he first staged there five years ago. This time, although he has ironed out some wrinkles in the script and drawn a clearer timeline through the work, as well as recasting some of the key roles, he has stuck closely to his original direction and wonderful, "Les Miserables"-like stagings.

Set sometime in a future Japan, where wars have been raging for 100 years between different ethnic groups, the shattered society he presents is riven every which way, with some profiting massively from the wars while most eke out destitute existences scavenging just to survive.

Confined in a dungeon

Into this anarchic scene steps our heroine, played by Ranran Suzuki, who has escaped from a dungeon where she has been confined by the Liberation Party for 10 years since she was 10 years old -- just like the real medieval German boy Kasper Hauser. Alone in the world and, like Kasper, not knowing where she came from or what is happening in the world, she joins up with the Kaneko family, who scrape together a living by relieving dead bodies of their possessions. She gives herself the name Kegare, which means "impure."

The musical drama then follows Kegare's personal growth through her relationship with the Kaneko family, and also shows us what becomes of her as Misa (Saki Takaoka) some 10 years later.

Throughout this more than three-hour staging, Matsuo creates a magnificent epic of a human odyssey that really brings to mind a 21st-century, Japanese pop-culture analogy to no less than "Lord of the Rings." Like Frodo Baggins, here we have the pure girl with a paradoxical name, Kegare, gradually learning about the reality of life and the greedy, dark side of people, as well as experiencing a pure friendship with a rich man's daughter called Kasumi (Natsuko Akiyama). Finally, in a kind of epiphany, she sings: "I am kirei (beautiful) because I accept the real me, the impure me, just as I am."

But what Matsuo creates here is no mere magnificent, musical drama --it's a spectacle, too. His two-story set with caves on either side and El Greco-like colors for the central backcloth allows him to show different images simultaneously, whether a battlefield, trench, dungeon, cottage room or whatever. And together with exciting, live pop music by Yotaro Ito (who also plays God in the play), with lyrics by Matsuo that are both comical and bitingly satirical and sardonic, this all adds up to entertainment of a very high order. Although it is long and complicated, with nonsense in there,too, this is a soul-shaking human drama with shades of the miraculous about it.

As she was thrust into the central role of Kegare just before the curtain rose due to the appointed actress's illness, Suzuki looked a bit uncomfortable in the ensemble at the beginning.

Grow into the role

However, Suzuki will undoubtedly grow into her role along with the other regular actors in Matsuo's team who all performed excellently, especially Akiyama and Sadao Abe (a son of the Kaneko family) and Hairi Katagiri (the Kaneko matriarch).

When I walked out of the theater, I saw a queue outside for the next evening's performance, and I am sure they will not regret spending a night waiting to see Matsuo's musical masterpiece.

"Kirei" runs till July 30 at the Theatre Cocoon, an 8-minute walk from JR Shibuya Station. For more details, call Theatre Cocoon at (03) 3477-9999, or visit www.bunkamura.co.jp It then moves to Theater Brava in Osaka from Aug. 6-12. For more details, call Kyodo Osaka on (06) 6233-8888.

Vying for the limelight with Matsuo both in Shibuya and the nation's theater world at large is the young and highly individualist playwright Keishi Nagatsuka, whose new play "Last Show" is now packing out the Parco Theatre.

Set in the present day, the play starts with two men arguing in a small office. Nakajima (Yuichiro Nakayama), a TV cameraman, is irritated with his director, Takuya Ishikawa (Yukiya Kitamura), who he is lambasting for always being so deferential to interviewees and never really trying to dig out what they may be trying to hide. They are making a program about an animal-rights campaigner named Toru Watabe (Arata Furuta). Though Watabe is known for rescuing abandoned pets and taking them in, Nakjima believes he has a darker side.

The next scene takes us to Ishikawa's one-bedroom apartment where he, his new (and pregnant) wife Miyako (Hiromi Nagasaku), and Nakajima are waiting for Watabe to arrive to record an exclusive interview. The fact is, though, the only reason Watabe has agreed to come along is to meet Miyako, who is a popular TV talent. Ishikawa's estranged father Katsuya (Morio Kazama) turns up unexpectedly and begins behaving bizarrely and violently.

Things are already odd, but when Katsuya kicks the daughter-in-law he's never met before in the stomach, the production really starts rocketing. What's more, we find out that Watabe "loves" animals so much that he eats them while they're still alive, and having taken a liking to the lovely Miyako, he sprinkles salt on her thigh and also attempts to bite into her. Soon the cozy condo becomes the scene of surreal, bloody and tragic events.

Best known for his works reflecting societal discord due to people whose minds are twisted by ego, jealousy and greed, Nagatsuka is here instead addressing family discord brought about by similar frailties. With its blood-letting, grotesque half-eaten dog and rape scenes, "Last Show" is far more extreme than the average family discord.

Powerful and reflective

But in using artistic license in a similar way to that young Turk of the English drama world, Martin McDonagh, it achieves a powerful and reflective result, leaving the audience to wonder and worry whether peaceful harmony is possible among people as troubled as the characters on stage. In fact, the similarities to McDonagh's work may be no mere coincidence, as Nagatsuka has directed the bad boy of Brit theater's "Wee Thomas" (2003) and "The Pillowman" (2004) at the Parco Theatre to massive acclaim. With Kazama and Furuta acting their deranged roles with disturbingly realistic power, this play, like its Shibuya rival, is quite unforgettable.

Although Matsuo and Nagatsuka are exposing modern realities in their different ways -- the former through a macro-scale sci-fi fantasy, the latter through a micro-scale analysis of family dysfunction -- in the end, they are both saying that, like it or not, this is reality. If there's a message, it is to "not let the bastards grind you down," and to keep on going to find a new value in life.

"Last Show" runs till July 24 at the Parco Theatre, an eight-minute walk from JR Shibuya Station. It then moves to the Theatre Draam City in Osaka till July 31. For more details, call the Parco Theatre on (03) 3477-5858, or visit www.parco-city.co.jp/play/

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