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Wednesday, Aug. 10, 2005


Mind the gaps . . .

Special to The Japan Times

Boldly tackling a challenge that no Swiss director ever has before, the world famous Jossi Wieler is taking "Yotsuya Kaidan," a play that is culturally central to Japan, and transforming it from kabuki into a contemporary drama with the assistance of an all-Japanese cast at Theater X in Ryogoku.

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Designer Kazuko Watanabe's subway set for Theater X's modern production of the classic tale "Yotsuya Kaidan" with Swiss director Jossi Wieler. PHOTOS COURTESY OF THEATER X

"Yotsuya Kaidan" is synonymous with ghost stories in Japan, where scary tales told among friends or presented on stage have been a popular summer entertainment for centuries. As people relish the chill of fear during this hottest season of the year, the genre has also taken firm root in television, movies and anime.

Whereas chill-seekers in the West tend to go for devilish monsters like Dracula and Frankenstein, Japanese find their fear factor closer to home -- and very often in the home, as wronged lovers exacting occult revenge on those who did them wrong. In this respect, "Yotsuya Kaidan" is quintessential for its type.

The original kabuki was written by famed playwright Tsuruya Nanboku and premiered in 1825 in Edo as "Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan." The premier must have been something else, because it was in fact a two-day double bill presented together with Tsuruya's other new work, the equally emblematic "Chushingura."

Staged at a time of growing social disquiet over the crumbling Tokugawa Shogunate, both plays make strong but subtle comments (for those guarded times) on the near-superfluous role of the samurai for whose benefit society was ordered. Whereas "Chushingura" deals with the warriors' ideals of loyalty and self-sacrifice, "Yotsuya Kaidan" highlights -- and satirically criticizes -- the self-serving, venal and womanizing ways of masterless samurai who were living parasitically off the other classes. The martial role they were born into was no longer called for, as centuries of enforced peace made them obsolete.

In multiple interviews, and in the play's program, Wieler confidently expressed his intention of relating this old tale directly to the world we live in now. To do so, he has transposed the tale's central character from a samurai into a sarar i man in modern Tokyo, and forsaken the usual kabuki devices used to portray scary ghost scenes. In addition, he has cut the cast from 50-odd performers to 12, and the running time from the original's 8 hours to just 90 minutes.

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"Onna" (Kazuko Yoshiyuki) watches as the brothel owner Takuetsu (Yoshi Oida) and his wife Omasa (Jun Arai) fall on the platform.

Immediately upon entering the auditorium, you behold the startling scale of the transformation on the curtainless stage; Berlin-based set designer Kazuko Watanabe has created a dimly lit replica of a subway platform, complete with coin lockers, a curving, gravel track in the middle, an ominous black tunnel in the background and an elevator through which actors enter and exit.

When the lights go up, a woman in a kimono (Kazuko Yoshiyuki) -- known only as "Onna" (woman) in the program -- emerges from the elevator and greets the other actors as they appear dressed in modern clothes. Afterwards, Onna (who isn't in the cast of the original play) stands seemingly unseen by the others on stage, and from time to time narrates or explains what's going on.

A promising start indeed, as the on stage action begins with the unemployed (masterless) Iemon (Makoto Kasagi) standing on the platform with his pregnant wife Oiwa (Kiyomi Tanigawa), as the attractive young Oume (Koromo Tomosato) steps out of elevator. Oume promptly falls in love with him, and he, too, is attracted to her, and to her wealthy family background -- and soon has it in mind to poison his wife.

Meanwhile, we are introduced to another love triangle on the same platform, between Oiwa's sister Osode (Reiko Mizumachi), her unemployed husband Yomoshichi (Tomonori Yoshida) and their former manservant Naosuke (Kazuhisa Takahashi).

Whereas this latter complication ends without fatality, before long Iemon does away with his wife Oiwa. Then, in true Edo fashion, Oiwa returns in visions that haunt Iemon until he eventually loses his sanity and kills his new wife and her father before meeting his own grisly end on the track.

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Right, Iemon (Makoto Kasagi) haunted by the ghost of his wife, Oiwa (Kiyomi Tanigawa).

Wieler's "Yotsuya Kaidan" is certainly a radical reworking of the original. From the very start, when I saw how the imaginative stage set creates an amazingly deep sense of space in the cozy Theater X, through the use of perspective and color tones, I was filled with the anticipation of seeing a completely new human drama.

Regrettably, though, that hope was gradually lost in confusion. Despite there being so many inspired ideas -- from setting it in a subway to using a station announcer to report murders -- the fatal flaw in this "Yotsuya Kaidan" was the acting.

In particular, a central device adopted by Wieler was having all the lines spoken in the Japanese of Old Edo. Though he seems to have done this to create a purposefully discordant Brechtian effect of alienation by using the unfamiliar to 'objectify' the action, the actors -- especially the younger ones -- seemed unable to get their heads (and bodies) around the long-winded and archaic form of Japanese.

As a result, plots just seemed to float in the air remote from the actors, and lacked any power or nuance in the delivery, while the audience was left in the dark over whole elements of the story.

Consequently, Wieler's declared intention of addressing issues of loneliness and isolation in modern life was lost as the extremely simplified story lacked a dramatic focus while being cluttered with superfluous side plots that only served as distractions. Altogether, it was really a shame to see a play which had undoubtedly huge potential, and which is studded with many gems, ultimately come across lacking any unity as a whole.

Meanwhile, a five-minute walk from Theater X, at the Benisan Pit, another international collaboration -- between 39-year-old German director Thomas Oliver Niehaus and the resident Theatre Project Tokyo Company (tpt) -- is in the offing as they prepare to stage "Dojoji (Dojo Temple)," a modern noh play written in 1957 by Yukio Mishima.

Having debuted in Japan with tpt two years ago when together they staged Botho Strauss' modern tale of dysfunctionality, "Time and the Room," Niehaus is this time bent on changing Mishima's mid-Showa quest for aesthetic perfection at-all-costs into a tale of modern-day Japan. Now the heroine, Kiyoko, is searching for her identity after having tried to kill herself.

With so many powerful cross-cultural currents at play, it is intriguing to imagine what Niehaus and tpt might make of it all -- and for all you contemporary drama fans out there, this should be a ticket not to miss.

"Yotsuya Kaidan" runs till Aug. 14 at the Theater X, a 3-minute walk from JR Ryogoku Station. For more details, call Theater X at (03) 5624-1181 or visit www.theaterx.jp
"Dojoji" runs Aug. 20-Sept. 4 at the Benisan Pit Theatre, a 5-minute walk from Morishita Station on the Oedo and Toei Shinjuku subway lines, or an 8-minute walk from JR Ryogoku Station. For more details, call tpt at (03) 3635-6355 or visit www.tpt.co.jp

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