Shunkin (春琴)

春琴  (Shunkin)

4 March 2008 (Tues), Tokyo Setagaya Public Theatre

This was an exploration of Tanizaki’s oft-staged novelette of the same name along with his famous essay “In Praise of Shadows”「陰翳礼賛」, both published in 1933. I’ve never been interested in seeing the play in the past nor had I seen any of the five film versions. This time, though, the director was Simon McBurney of Theatre de Complicité, who often works at this theater. I’ve been a fan of his physical style of theater for many years, including his intriguing version of the Murakami novel Elephant Vanishes 2-3 years ago. I waited too long to get tickets, as usual, but managed to get a 3F seat (fortunately in the center) on a weekday matinee. As it happens, the shows on this day had English subtitles, which turned out to be very fortunate. Over the weekend, I read the story, which is only 85 pages or so. It is a viciously cruel tale, but I can see where it lends itself to dramatization. With McBurney at the helm and the essay as part of the mix, I knew this was not going to be a straightforward telling. And I was right.

Shunkin is a spoiled girl from a well-to-do family in Osaka. As a child, she had showed great promise as a dancer, but blinded in a mysterious accident (perhaps by a jealous maid) at age 8, she switched to the shamisen. Sasuke, a boy from a poor family who was working at the household, began to take care of her and became completely infatuated. Shunkin, embittered by her accident or emboldened or simply naturally inclined, became insolent and rather malicious in her treatment of others. This was tolerated in part due to a misplaced sympathy for her handicap. She was also fanatic about her looks, aware of her great beauty, and maintained a strict regimen to keep her skin smooth and her face attractive. Sasuke, in his growing obsession for her, secretly began learning the shamisen in imitation. When this was discovered, she offered to teach him, an offer he quickly accepted. The lessons began innocently enough, but she soon proved not just strict but sadistic, inflicting severe physical and mental abuse to a degree that even her parents questioned. But Sasuke accepted every cruelty with humility (and secretly with gratitude), and her parents were happy to see their daughter diverted. Sasuke’s obsequiousness only encouraged Shunkin’s worst side, but nothing she did could deter him. She became pregnant at one point, suggesting that she and Sasuke were pursuing some extracurricular activities. But nothing in their outer relationship changed; she was as cruel and he was as submissive as ever. The parents suggested she marry him, but she flatly refused, scoffing at his low social status. When the baby was born, she refused even to touch it and ordered it given away. She began to take more students, who put up with her because of her undoubted talent and, for the boys, her considerable beauty. But she made many enemies along the way, including a boy who she struck hard after some unwanted advances on his part. Finally, one night, she was attacked in her room by an unknown assailant, who poured scalding water on her and hit her in the face with a heavy tea kettle. Imagining her looks destroyed, she was devastated, and told Sasuke that she never wanted him to see her again. Distraught, he made a horrific sacrifice: he found a needle, stuck it through both eyes and blinded himself. In this way, the last thing he would ever see was the beautiful face that existed before the attack. She commended him for his action, rare words of praise that by themselves justified everything for him. From that point, though she never would marry him, they lived happily together. He outlived her significantly, but never regretted his actions and presumably always remembered her as the young girl she was before the accident.

The novelette itself has an intriguing framing device in which an unnamed person is trying to piece the story together using people’s recollections, a memoir essentially authored by Sasuke, and known facts. So it is told entirely in the first person by someone completely unrelated with the story, with questions woven through about whether this really happened or whether that person really said that and such. This has a strange distancing effect for the reader, providing an impassive recounting of even the most extreme actions of the main characters. It’s the story of a story, an interesting device that is neither emotionally involving nor seeking to be so. Because the characters on the stage would have to be played by actors in the flesh, this type of detachment would seem tough, and I imagine that most plays are a more straightforward telling.

McBurney, though, was interested in other things. He seemed to be exploring the nature of memory, using darkness and shadows as his metaphors. This was most aptly symbolized in the story by blindness, but represented physically by the dim and suggestive lighting throughout, including an evocative use of candles. The images were all faded as the props and furniture were shifted around to set scenes; for example, tatami mats were brought together to form a room, then lined up rapidly to form a walkway around the garden, then removed as quickly to shift to the next scene.

The show uses yet another framework featuring a contemporary female narrator called to a studio to make an audio tape of the book, placing one more layer between us and the characters. This turned out to be rather silly, with a subplot involving her estranged lover; at the end, she is supposedly so moved by the story she relates that she calls him in an effort at reconciliation. That cheapened the surrounding events and should have been dropped. But having her read the story did preserve the ambiguities and emotional detachment that were in the original, something that a simple dramatization might not have accomplished. It was interesting to see the story play out without caring a wit about any of the characters. This was particularly true of Shunkin, whose callousness the show doesn’t even try to defend. It’s a brave playwright and director who portray a blind person, usually a sympathetic character for the handicap alone, so brutally. A semi-Bunraku puppet is used to portray her as a child, an effective way to get around the sight of a real kid striking people and behaving with such utter nastiness. Sasuke comes closest to gaining our sympathy since he is able to tell at least some of his story in his own words. He’s shown variously as an old man recalling Shunkin and as his young self. His memories are obviously unreliable but his worship for her is undimmed; he talks repeatedly, for example, of how her foot was smaller than the palm of his hand, and the shady photograph representing his last memory of her fades in and out of view throughout. The play becomes a long and fascinating meditation on the nature of memory.

All of the actors were excellent, especially both the young and old Sasuke. Popular actress Fukatsu Eri also gave a superbly controlled performance by  as both the child (operating and voicing the doll) and adult Shunkin. But this was very much a director’s show. A lot of the text was taken directly from the difficult book and even projected on a screen in some instances, and much of the dialogue was in an imperceptible Kansai accent (thank goodness for the subtitles). The effects are creative, such as the fluttering paper for the birds, the combining and separation of paper sheets representing fragments of Shunkin’s photo (which is projected onto them), the use of the tatami to represent a floor or a path or whatever. The key element among all this was the lighting. Even the contemporary setting was kept in shadow, as the recording studio had no lights except the lamp on the desk (along with a shaft of light thrown from the door as the woman enters and leaves). The sets were fluid and abstract as usual with McBurney, but there was none of the people-acting-like-chairs stunts as in his previous pieces. It was much less self-conscious and more subtle, which I enjoyed more, at least for this work. The overall effect was blurry like the memories being portrayed – the memoirs, Sasuke, the mysterious photograph and so forth. Like the book, the show takes no stand on Shunkin’s viciousness or Sasuke’s equally incomprehensible obsession and sycophancy, presenting these as impassively as could be imagined. I’m not sure how the show reflects the “Shadows” essay, but it was a fascinating piece of theater. I’m interested to see one of the movie adaptations, especially either with Tanaka Kinuyo or Kyo Machiko, to see how a direct presentation compares.

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