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Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2005

GEKIDAN KENKO

The Tokyo Python returns


Special to The Japan Times

Once upon a time in the 1980s, there was a theater company called Gekidan Kenko (Health Theater), whose zany, nonsensical and sometimes radical stagings became the stuff of cult legend. But then, in 1992, this quirky gem was dissolved by its quirky Japanese founder, self-styled Keralino Sandoroviich, as he embarked on Nylon 100 degrees C, a project in which he continues to this day to take on a much wider range of drama.

News photo
Japanese writer and director Keralino Sandoroviich reunites his Gekidan Kenko (Health Theater) to parody Japanese films and society in the Monty Pythonesque production "Tokyo Atari (Around Tokyo)." PROGRAM COVER ARTWORK COURTESY OF GEKIDAN KENKO

So last week the air was abuzz with expectation before the curtain went up for the special Gekidan Kenko reunion production of "Tokyo Atari (Around Tokyo)." The play is being put on in that renowned mecca of cutting-edge contemporary drama, the cozy, 400-seat Honda Theater in Shimokitazawa, and will run until the end of this month.

As 42-year-old "Kera" made clear in the program, though, this wouldn't be a nostalgic homage to the old days; he didn't want to experience the same uncomfortable feeling that he got seeing his heroes of humor, the Monty Python crew, all watery eyed at the opening night curtain calls of the triple Tony Award-winning Broadway musical "Spamalot."

Instead, Kera -- who discovered Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd on his youthful ramble to the Python grail -- set out to create yet another truly original work rich in hilarity, satire and surrealism. Here, though, he himself remains true not only to the famed spirit of that British TV series "Monty Python's Flying Circus," but also to the cheeky spirit of Gekidan Kenko.

The opening boded well, as colorful stage lights and '60s pop music filled the air, before a big screen showed an old couple falteringly trying to use a cell phone. Then Kera himself popped up on screen, wandering around the theater section of a bookshop, where he finds other authors' books selling well, while his are piled up in a bargain bin. From there Kera descends into paranoia, as we see that wherever he goes in Tokyo -- whether it be Shibuya Crossing or any random magazine stand -- "Tokyo Atari" is being ridiculed. Just as it appears that Kera will be crushed beyond hope, his confidence destroyed, he delivers a side-splitting back flip in the style of Megumi Okina, the heroine of archrival director Suzuki Matsuo's recently resurrected hit musical "Kirei."

And there was more -- as the audience burst out laughing, the image of Okina singing the show's theme song was subtitled with a list of "not-kirei" (not beautiful) celebrities who have been either arrested or become notorious for some sort of bad behavior or another.

All very Pythonesque indeed, and an inspired opening for the main action, which starts in an old-style tatami room where an old, kimono-clad couple are packing for a trip. Immediately, from the familiar lines, the audience realizes this is a parody of the internationally famed 1953 film "Tokyo Monogatari (Tokyo Story)" by Yasujiro Ozu -- especially as the actress Ryoko Shinmura is a spitting image of actress Chieko Higashiyama, who plays provincial wife and grandmother Tomi in the movie.

Then, on what the lighting revealed to be a two-story set, another preposterous parody of a Japanese cinema classic began to be played out -- this time Akira Kurosawa's "Ikira (To Live)" from 1952. The action moved at a dazzling pace, with almost instantaneous scene changes on the ground-floor sliding stage, and the effect was mesmerizing: Kera retained key phrases and structures from the original movies, but larded them with absurdist up-to-the-minute mirth and sardonic side-splitters, made all the more unreal because he often had two or three actors playing the same role.

For instance, whereas in "Tokyo Monogatari," the old couple visiting their children in Tokyo have a lovely summer break, but feel a bit uncomfortable about the busy, big-city lives they lead, here we see them hopelessly and ridiculously alienated. Not only that, but in the last moments of the play we realize the children they are visiting are not even theirs at all, but part of a holiday package the old couple have bought to try to give them some sense of family -- their "children" are actually complete strangers who live 10 minutes away from their home.

And meanwhile, whereas in the original "Ikiru," the good-natured widower Watanabe (played here by Toru Tezuka) learns that he has stomach cancer on the eve of his retirement, but finds his son Mitsuo and daughter-in-law Kazue too busy and absorbed with each other to notice his distress, in this parody we see them (Hiroki Miyake and Inuko Inuyama) bullying him mercilessly. Instead of responding meekly like Kurosawa's hero, though, Watanabe kills the couple and sets off on a crazed quest to conquer the world.

News photo
Full-force humor and cynicism from the cast of "Tokyo Atari" PHOTO COURTESY OF GEKIDAN KENKO

And then, we see Mitsuo and Kazue, rather than being uncaring as in "Ikira," return as kindly ghosts who look after Watanabe and help him to defy medical science and carry on living for years, until finally he is stabbed for no reason by a crazy mob.

As absurd and absorbing as the reworkings of the originals were, though, that was only half the fun, as Kera fleshed out his warped story lines with non-stop black humor, nonsense episodes, cynical put-downs of the current drama scene in Japan, swipes at the treatment of the disabled and lots of sex jokes.

And in the end, as the audience left the Honda Theater, aching from laughter and in mild shock, few surely felt they'd attended some kind of homage to Gekidan Kenko; instead, while Kera had mined a similar absurdist vein, what he served up with his old crew of Gekidan Kenko actors was not so much a fun-filled spectacle like those of 20 years ago, but a powerful, unusual and original drama as cynical as the times we live in, yet hugely entertaining, too.

"Tokyo Atari" runs till Aug. 28 at the Honda Theater, a 3-minute walk from Shimokitazawa Station on the Odakyu Line and the Keio-Inokashira Line.
For more details, call Sillywalk Company at (03) 5458-9261 or visit www.sillywalk.com/nylon/


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