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Friday, April 3, 2009

Swords and slapstick

Injecting some humor into the gory tale of Musashi

Special to The Japan Times

In Los Angeles last week, the showdown in the World Baseball Classic between Japan's "Samurai" and their South Korean rivals had TV audiences gripped. So, too, were those at Saitama Arts Theater, who witnessed an acting duel between 26-year-olds Tatsuya Fujiwara and Shun Oguri in "Musashi," a hilarious samurai sword-fighting tale directed by the theater's resident dramatist, Yukio Ninagawa.

News photo
Young blades: Tatsuya Fujiwara (left) in the title role of Hisashi Inoue's long-awaited "Musashi" and Shun Oguri as his rival, Kojiro Sasaki HORIPRO

Written by Hisashi Inoue, former president of the Japan Pen Club, "Musashi" is led by the performances of these two, both Ninagawa favorites. Fujiwara made his career debut aged 15 at the Barbican in London in Ninagawa's production of "Shintokumaru (by Shuji Terayama)," while Oguri performed for English audiences in 2006 with a role in Ninagawa's version of "Titus Andronicus" at Stratford-upon-Avon in the Royal Shakespeare Company's "Complete Works" festival.

Having last shared a stage in 2003 in Ninagawa's "Hamlet," when Fujiwara played Hamlet and Oguri was Fortinbras, the two young blades cross swords again in a work based on the life of the wandering samurai swordsman Musashi Miyamoto (1584-1645) and his famous encounter in 1612, the Duel of Ganryu Island with a rival, Kojiro Sasaki (1585-1612?).

The curtain rises at the climactic moment of the duel as the rivals — Fujiwara in the title role and Oguri as Sasaki — stare at each other against the backdrop of a setting sun. In a scene revisited in countless Japanese works of fiction, TV and film dramas, anime and manga, Musashi fells Kojiro on a beach, before the stage is plunged into darkness.

Rather than flashing back to what led to this moment, though, Inoue draws on something he noticed in "Musashi" by Eiji Yoshikawa, the definitive historical novel of the samurai's life that was serialized in the Asahi newspaper from 1935 till 1939; the book never says that Kojiro died, only that Musashi is left standing over him, finding "there was still a trace of breath," and thinking to himself, "with the right treatment he may recover."

Thus in Inoue's "Musashi," Musashi and Kojiro meet again six years later at a Zen temple in Kamakura. The 74-year old Inoue says his version of the play has been more than 20 years in the making. Takeo Hori, the 76-year-old founder and head of the theatrical production company Horipro, asked him to write a Broadway musical version of the Musashi story for him in 1985. Inoue didn't get it done in time for production, though, and only recently has come back to the theme.

So why revisit it now?

"Recently I've become aware that I might die tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow?" Inoue says. "It could happen to me anytime. But then I remembered that I can't die before I complete 'Musashi,' because I felt bad about letting Hori-san down after he worked so hard to stage it on Broadway.

"So I called him up and told him I would write it for him now. If he didn't like it or want it, then he was free to throw it into the bin."

Like the second meeting of the old foes Musashi and Kojiro at that Kamakura temple, Inoue's intriguing "Musashi" was worth waiting for. Upon meeting again, Kojiro challenges Musashi to a duel in three days' time. Both of them stay at the temple, each meditating deeply on how to kill the other. It's a fascinating meaning-of-life scenario that Inoue invests with side-splitting humor to craft a powerful, life-affirming message.

As for performances, it is difficult to say whether Fujiwara or Oguri comes out on top in the battle, and the dramatic tension between them keeps the whole play taut while the other cast members, including veteran actors Kazunaga Tsuji and Kotaro Yoshida, draw plenty of laughs with their physical acting. Although the question of which of these two brilliant samurai is going to prevail is absorbing, eventually it is each character's distinct humanity that is most compelling. "Musashi" runs an improbably speedy 3 1/2 hours, and Horipro hopes to take the play to England in 2010.

"Musashi" runs till April 19 at the Saitama Arts Theater, an 8-minute walk from JR Yonohonmachi Station on the Saikyo Line. It then travels to Umeda Arts Theater: Theater Drama City in Osaka, showing April 25-May 10. For more details, call (03) 3490-4949 or visit hpot.jp

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