9 February 2008 (Sat), Tokyo
Having recently seen Naruse’s masterful if unsettling film version, I was eager to experience it on stage. Mori Mitsuko has apparently been doing this show since it opened in 1961 (she’ll hit her 1,900th performance in this three-month go-round) and is still selling out. They announced that she would not be doing her famous second-act somersault this time, which at age 80-something is understandable. But I sensed that the time is ticking for her and decided I’d better see her before she checks out of the role. Also appearing this time was Kuroyanagi Tetsuko, who I’ve enjoyed in other shows in the past. The show is in a brand new theatre of less than 1,000 seats, reborn from the old Bungeiza. I wish they had introduced raked seating since I had a very tall guy right in front of me, but anyway it was a nice intimate space. This is their opening (or re-opening) show.
Though there were a number of well-known performers in the show, the main attraction by far is Mori Mitsuko, whose legendary status is based entirely on this role. And she was the biggest disappointment. What she was doing couldn’t be called acting: she gave off no energy whatsoever and did little more than mouth her lines with the barest of movement or facial expression. Her voice was tiny (thank goodness I was sitting close), and she seemed to be coasting more from memory than what was actually going on around her. Maybe things were different back in the 1960s, but she is obviously way too old to be doing this now. Her hands and feet shook noticeably, she can barely move, and she couldn’t manage a reaction even in dramatic emotions such as anger or hurt. When she was hit by her husband and later slapped by her friend, she didn’t even pretend to be hit, such as turning her head or holding her hand up; nothing registered on her face at all. When the cops dragged her off stage, she protested with words but not her body or tone of voice. It was painful to watch. She did get through her lines, which is impressive for an old lady and a four-hour show, but surely there must be more than that. I thought of Carol Channing in the last revival of Hello, Dolly, when the audience applauded just for her being able to get down the steps, never mind her acting. I guess Mori Mitsuko is in that category now. I have to assume that people want to see her just because she’s been around so long, like a living Mousetrap. But her character is the heart and soul of the show, and nothing works without a strong personality at the centre. It doesn’t help that she’s competing with memories of Takamine Hideko, who gave such a vivid performance in the film. They should retire her gracefully.
The general level of the show was pretty much on a par with the usual Toho hamming. However, there were some redeeming features. One was Kuroyanagi Tetsuko. She’s an acquired taste, and the others in our group weren’t as taken as I was. She basically plays one role in all of her shows, the role of herself. Her garbled way of speaking is also problematic. But it all worked here. She had energy to spare and is a definite presence on the stage. She made the most of her comic moments with spot-on timing; in fact, she played her character overall a bit more comically than in the movie, which was a valid choice. If she was again basically playing the role of Kuroyanagi Tetsuko, she was very good at it, and her approach did not feel like “acting”. Just like Mori Mitsuko, she had to contend with an unbelievable performance by her counterpart in the movie, but she did a good job of banishing that memory by molding the role to her own skills. She must be close to Mori’s age, but she’s done a much better job of staying in mental and physical shape.
Also worth mentioning are the actresses who played Mori Mitsuko’s mother (Otsuka Michiko) and the female writer next door (Suzuki Aoki). They were both utterly natural in their presentation, and the latter had some angry scenes that allowed her to show off her skills. There was also a nice scene when Kuroyanagi Tetsuko and her writer husband come to Hayashi’s home when she’s away, and the next-door neighbor comes to join them. If the show had been at that acting level from the start, it would have been a vast improvement. Unfortunately other actors didn’t measure to that standard, only to a typical Toho level. The part of the man upstairs was curiously given to a not-so-unattractive actor, which didn’t make much sense. His performance was fair enough, but his looks and general appearance made it hard to understand why the Mori Mitsuko character wouldn’t choose him.
The play pretty much adhered to the movie, although there was one important scene when Hayashi returns to her hometown Onomichi that I don’t remember from the film. She is hoping to marry an old flame, but she’s rejected in yet another disappointing moment for her. It was a nice addition. Otherwise, the film and play seem to parallel each other closely, though I remember the former being more dense and less fragmented than the play. In any case, it’s impossible to compare given the vast disparity in the acting pool of each. The play might be worth seeing again one day when a more talented star comes along. But like Dolly, I suppose we’ll have to wait until the present star retires. My guess is that won’t be much longer.