Atami Satsujin Jiken (熱海殺人事件)

熱海殺人事件 (Atami Satsujin Jiken)

24 December 2015 (Thurs), Tokyo

An extremely difficult ticket to get because of the pairing of veterans Hirata Mitsusu and Kazama Morio in this 1974 work for the first time in 33 years. They’ve always been linked in my mind because of their go-for-broke performances in the film of Tsuka Kohei’s other classic Kamata Koshinkyoku (蒲田行進曲) in the early 1980s (winning Japan Academy Awards for best actor and supporting actor in the process), and they were key members of Tsuka’s troupe in its heyday. So I wasn’t going to miss this.

Two detectives are investigating the murder of a young woman in the seaside resort of Atami. They have a suspect, but as his story isn’t elaborate enough for their taste, they work to embellish it to make it worthy of their efforts and more appealing to the public – shades of Chicago. For instance, the suspect insists that he took the woman to a coffee shop, but they pressure him to change that to a bar. They construct an elaborate romantic beach scene for him for the crime, and argue with him over whether it’s okay to kill an ugly woman as opposed to a beautiful one. Their efforts grow increasingly loony, eventually spurring the suspect to want to see himself as part of a bigger and better crime. At one point, they tell him he’s not good enough to be a murderer and declare him innocent, at which he protests frantically. The line between fiction and reality begin to blur in his mind. In the end, he gets the crime he wants, and exits to the clicks and flashes of cameras of an adoring media.

The show is anti-naturalistic in both story and presentation, playing against theatrical convention with knowing poses, sudden lighting changes, dramatic music that comes in out of nowhere and cuts off abruptly, exaggerated voices characterized by lots of screaming, rapid nonsensical dialogue, sound effects like Batman-type whacks and pows, and more. It revels in its artificiality; at no point does it allow us to believe we’re watching a slice of life. It’s an exhausting experience, especially with the punning dialogue flying fast and furious along with the acrobatics of the actors. It’s theater of the absurd à la Japonaise. It’s not really the type of show that appeals to me, though it’s hard to judge since I did miss a lot of the dialogue, including plenty of topical references that even younger Japanese audiences probably couldn’t catch (there was a glossary in the program). Personalities mentioned in passing spanned from Clark Gable to the old Japanese singing duo Toi et Moi to Mariah Carey, the last of which didn’t make much sense in the 1970s setting – but I doubt anyone noticed. The audience seemed to enjoy the overacting, non sequiturs and illogical responses for their own sake. I suppose the show has to be seen in the context of the times, when Tsuka was apparently rebelling against the cookie-cutter stories and artificial acting style of shingeki and such. From today’s perspective, it seemed rather random, though the cumulative effect was undeniably powerful. In any case, I was never bored, and the material is certainly handled with skill compared to derivative writers like Noda Hideki, whose style closely resembles this (something like a wannabe Sondheim songwriter – imitation without the talent).

The music included a wild mixture of snippets of movie themes (Gone With the Wind, The Godfather, Limelight), Japanese and Western pop, enka and much more, used largely to heighten the theatrics rather than make any evident comment on the action. I can’t imagine how much the producers must be paying in copyrights. The loud bit of Swan Lake that opens the show is called for specifically in the text (the detective says he likes Tchaikovsky), but again it’s not quite clear what that was supposed to mean, if anything. A much better musical accompaniment came from two guitarists playing background mood music in a kuromisu-like setup that was very effective. Nice. The single set had just a few desks and minimal props, but they made up for that with striking lighting effects functioning mainly to call attention to itself. This was supplemented with smoke and video projections. The lead detective stood out with his blue eyeliner and white tux, which seemed a bit unusual. But nothing was really usual here. It was like a cartoon playing at high speed.

Both the stars were in their element. They radiated energy from start to finish, right down to the final moments lighting each others’ cigarettes (reminded me of the cigarette-lighting on the staircase in Kamata). It was impressive not only because these guys are now over 60, but because they were clearly in total control. Each had numerous long passages that were flawlessly delivered. It’s hard to imagine better actors in these roles or a better performance. They were worth the ticket price on their own. The criminal, a much younger actor named Nakao Akiyoshi, was also unexpectedly fine, keeping up with the detectives in every way. He made a great transition from his early befuddlement and refusal to lie about events to his eventual desire to believe himself worthy. The detective’s female assistant, former Takarazuka star Aihara Mika (who is also Tsuka’s daughter – this was her first time in one of her dad’s shows), was not on the same level. She went through the motions but gave more of an impression of choreographed movement than spontaneous combustion, though she did come through in the big romantic scene on the beach. That may be partly due to the writing, since the character doesn’t seem fully developed. A lot of her dialogue and especially her movements seemed like add-ons rather than necessary. I got the sense that the role could be cut without much difference. That said, she was not particularly convincing even with the little she had to deal with. Maybe more experience will help.

I remember that when I asked for permission to do an English production of Kamata way back when, Tsuka’s people recommended that I do Atami instead, saying that they would love to see a foreign version. It does have a nice economical cast and set, but I just couldn’t figure out how to bring it to life in English. Plus I had the example of the brilliant Kamata film, which adopted a more narrative approach that I’m not sure would work with Atami (whose film version flopped with both critics and audiences). Even the original Japanese version won’t be for everyone, but it was memorable if nothing else. I’d be interested in seeing it with a different cast.

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