元禄港歌 (Genroku Minato Uta)
7 January 2015 (Thurs), Tokyo
Revival of a Ninagawa hit from 1980, written by his frequent collaborator Akimoto Matsuyo. It was a tough ticket to get on the reputation of both the show and Ninagawa’s over-the-top production as well as the starry cast, including Ennosuke and Miyazawa Rie as the two main women. I managed after much searching to find two seats on the internet. It’s strange that there’s no mechanism for extending the runs of clearly popular hits like this, though I suppose Ennosuke in particular must be hard to lock down given his Kabuki commitments (the show also travels to Osaka for a limited run). With the huge cast and elaborate sets, I wonder how they make money in this medium-sized theater for just a three-week run.
It’s a fairly typical Japanese weepie, but an extremely well written one. The action takes place in a prosperous town in Hyogo in the Genroku era of the late 17th century. A group of wandering geze (瞽女) blind female singers make their annual visit to the town. They are invited to a large merchant’s home, where the head of the troupe Itoe (Ennosuke) leads the others in a moving shamisen performance of “Kuzu-no-ha”, the story (familiar from Kabuki) of a fox who has to separate from her child. Shinsuke (Danda Yasunori), the younger of the household’s two sons, is particularly moved. He confesses to one of the singers Hatsune (Miyazawa Rie), that he has doubts about his own parentage. His misgivings turn out to be well placed, as we learn that he was the product of an affair by the father and thus not the wife’s child, though he was raised by her. He asks if Itoe has ever had a child given the emotion she put into the song. Hatsune avoids an answer, but it is clear that Shinsuke suspects Itoe is his actual mother. It is also evident that Shinsuke is falling in love with Hatsune.
Complications ensue as the mother of the household (Shimbashi Taiko) learns that her actual son, the egocentric Manjiro (Takahashi Issho), is seeing a young girl Utaharu (Suzuki An) that she does not approve of, and tries to break up their relationship by setting the girl up with another suitor. Meanwhile, she protests vehemently when her husband (Ichikawa Enya) says he wants to give his business to the more trustworthy Shinsuke rather than Manjiro, not only choosing younger over older but effectively his child over their child. Moreover, the suitor is incensed to learn that Utaharu is still seeing Manjiro despite being promised to him. At a Noh performance that evening, Shinsuke ends up taking Manjiro’s place at the last minute as the lead dancer. As he is performing the masked dance, the suitor suddenly runs in and, thinking it is Manjiro, throws poison in the actor’s face. As a result, Shinsuke goes blind. On top of that, the suitor has also killed Utaharu. In the end, Shinsuke says that he can see more now that he’s blind, and goes off with his lover Hatsune and his true mother Itoe to live together.
The story is melodramatic but effective, and the characters, though a bit exaggerated, are sharply drawn. The story managed to juggle the numerous relations – two parent-child stories, two romantic couples, husband-wife issues – with skill. There were some unanswered questions, like when and how Shinsuke realized he was not the son of the woman who had raised him, or how Itoe knew that this was her long-lost son. The language, a Kansai dialect from the Edo Era, was pretty dense, so maybe I need to watch it again (I notice it’s being filmed). My friend, who lost sight in one eye in a skiing accident years ago, pointed drily to the way that Shinsuke emerges blinded after a horrific accident and is already talking about how much more he can “see” – where was his shock? And that ending: how exactly are the blind going to lead the blind? Good point. Drama trumped logic big time.
The show opens with lots of hysterical activity, as per the standard for Japanese directors, but the story gets underway quickly enough. The 50-strong cast fills the stage impressively and is masterfully guided by Ninagawa, who uses the entire theater as his palette with exits and entrances on stage, through the audience and pretty much everywhere. I wasn’t wild about the use of the priests, which didn’t seem necessary, but it was at least atmospheric. While there is plenty of screaming, violence and tears along the way, there are also many quiet moments, not least the long and beautiful fox song sequence played by a dozen shamisen singers and sung extremely well by Ennosuke (who’s probably played the fox role in Kabuki). There were many nice moments, notably the argument between the mother and father, the puppet dance accompanying the music, and the sequence in the temple where Shinsuke finds the wooden fortune tablet for Hatsune left by her parents when they dumped her as a child (another parent-child incident, now that I think about it). The show was never less than engaging.
Production-wise, there were long uncomfortable stretches in the dark between scenes while they were changing the sets, maybe a holdover from the ways of its long-ago initial production. That was probably okay back in the day, but it’s painful for modern audiences used to a more flowing cinematic style. I’m not sure if Ninagawa was just being lazy, but that needs badly to be reworked.
The various sets were all framed by large camellia trees, whose heavy blossoms kept falling randomly with distracting loud thumps throughout the play. It was a good idea on paper that wore thin in reality when the blossoms interrupted some dramatic moments, though it did look nice. The best set was the household, where the two inner areas were separated by transparent fusuma screens in a clever design that allowed full use of the stage. That was helped by masterful lighting. The scenes on the port and in the temple were also nicely realized.
The acting could be histrionic, like Ennosuke’s「会いたかった会いたかった会いたかーーーった」 (i missed you I Missed You I MISSED YOU~~~~~) toward the end, but that’s pretty much written into the text and, anyway, the audience lapped it up. He was in great form throughout with pitch-perfect timing, taking things at his own measured pace. He wrung all of the pathos out of the “Kuzu-no-ha” song, where his character is of course thinking of her own child. He played the shamisen wonderfully as well – is there anything this guy can’t do? He was a star in every way. He’s already the best of the big young Kabuki actors, and this suggests he can handle pretty much anything (he’s also been in Ninagawa’s Shakespeare plays). He had great support from Miyazawa Rie as Hatsune, the other big blind role. The mother and father were the standouts among the rest, but the cast in general was pretty flawless. Among the minor roles, Oishi Keita was memorable as the suitor.
Incidentally, the Noh segment came from Hyakuman, coincidentally a show I saw last month that was, not so coincidentally, about a woman separated from her child. I was put off by the carelessness of it, such as the lame suriashi walk and some random movements. I notice it was choreographed by a Noh practitioner, but it came across as Noh lite. It’s presented as an amateur performance, which I suppose excuses it to some extent. Still, the character was supposed to be good at it, and if they’re going to do it at all, it would have been nice if they had tried a little harder.
Nevertheless, while the show could have been tightened in places, it was a soap opera par excellence. Well written, well directed, well played. A thoroughly enjoyable evening.