Kabuki: Momijigari, Princess Aida

Kabuki: 紅葉狩 (Momijigari)、愛駝姫  (Princess Aida)

8 October 2008 (Sun), Tokyo Kabukiza

The chief attraction here was the second half of the bill, a Kabuki adaptation of Aida directed by the ever-popular Noda Hideki. I’ve said before that I wouldn’t suffer again through Noda’s self-indulgent works, but I somehow convinced myself that I should see at least one of his Kabuki pieces since his other two were such big hits. On top of that, I felt that a Kabuki version of Aida is actually a workable idea. The show is supposedly a sellout, but I managed to get two seats early in the run. Unfortunately I couldn’t find anyone else as gullible as I am to buy the other ticket, so I took a half-interested friend along as a guest.

The good news first. I had thought with some dread that Momijigari would be a pure dance piece, but there is in fact a story with plenty of dialogue along with a good variety of dances ranging from the comic to sensual. It’s a strange choice for a summer show given the autumn setting, but a good production is welcome any season. A general (Hashinosuke) and his two men, traveling through the mountains to see the autumn leaves, come upon a mysterious princess and her party. After much encouragement in the form of dance and the lure of the still-unseen princess, they convince the reluctant general to stay and join them. The princess’ ladies-in-waiting each do a dance and even drag the general’s men out to do their own dances. Finally, the beautiful princess (Kantaro) emerges. She performs a number of memorable dances, eventually lulling the men to sleep. When she sees that they are out, she suddenly smiles evilly and leaves the stage. In the interim, a mountain god appears and tries to rouse the general. It turns out that the princess is a demon who has purposely put them to sleep in order to attack them. The mountain god cannot awaken them and gives up. But the general, convinced he has had a dream, awakens just in time to take on the princess, now transformed into a horrific witch. With the help of his magic sword, he manages to pin her against a tree as the show ends.

This is one of the few dance-centered Kabuki shows that I’ve truly enjoyed. The dances are perfectly integrated into the piece and are fit nicely to the individual characters. They are each distinctive and short enough to remain enjoyable. Kantaro did his usual fine job as both the princess and the demon, including an especially effective transformation once the general has fallen asleep. Hashinosuke also made an impression despite, uniquely among the characters here, having no dances at all. It was a very enjoyable show that I would welcome seeing again.

Then there was Princess Aida. The opera is outrageous enough to suggest a Kabuki format, with outsized heroes and emotions, plenty of huge set pieces, the potential for big battle scenes, and what is essentially a double-suicide at the end. I knew that the Kabuki version was set in Japan’s warring period (戦国時代) centering on a battle between the Mino and Owari domains, which made perfect sense. This gave me some hope. The story details, taken from the Kabuki home page, also seem promising on paper: A battle between the Owari and Mino domains has ended in victory for the Mino domain, and the defeated lord Oda Nobuhide (Mitsugoro) has been forced to send his beautiful daughter Princess Aida (Shichinosuke) as hostage to victorious Saito Dosan (Yajuro). She becomes the maid to Saito’s daughter Princess No (Kanzaburo). Dosan wants his daughter to marry Kimura Damesukezaemon (Hashinosuke), the most powerful of his generals, but Damesukezaemon is in love with Aida. When she learns of this, Princess No is filled with jealousy. At the same time, Aida’s father Nobuhide plots his revenge on the Mino clan.

So far, so Verdi. It didn’t seem that much of a stretch to envision a Kabuki-esque portrayal using Japanese equivalents of the Verdi characters, and this summary sounded right on the money. Disney’s musical version of the opera was pretty lame, but it at least did a fairly credible job of re-imagining the characters with a modern sensibility. I was hoping for the same from Noda.

The result was disheartening. Rather than create something new, Noda took his usual easy path of parody, which has long since become self-parody. The first problem is his evident fear of calm exposition. Like every single show I’ve seen of his, this one begins with an artificial burst of hysteria, this time centered on two fortune tellers. The scene is Noda’s usual collection of cutesy faces and poses, unnatural movements and manzai-type dialogue. He refuses to let the story unfold at its own pace, using a contrived pandemonium that substitutes for wit or real humor. Later, when the general first appears on stage and confesses his love for Aida (addressed in a starry-eyed look to the audience instead of the other characters he’s actually speaking to), he delivers the first line from one side of the stage, then for no reason sprints to the other side for the next line, and then crosses inexplicably back to the start for the following line. There is no motivation whatsoever for all this running around, and suggests rather that Noda is simply afraid to trust his own story and actors. I somehow imagined a Noda Hamlet racing around with Yorick’s skull. It’s distracting and all very tiresome. This tendency is not uncommon among Japanese directors – in fact, I’d say it’s their most distinguishing feature – but it’s dispiriting to see it on a Kabuki stage.

Also, any hope that Noda would be contributing to the development of Kabuki as an art form vanished within the first five minutes. He uses Kabuki conventions such as wari-zerifu (割台詞) only as jokes, and provided nothing in their place that might offer a contemporary take on the traditional format. Kanzaburo’s Cocoon Kabuki series is far superior in this respect; it reaches back to the old and still comes back with something fresh and new, setting a pattern that points a way to the future. Noda, by contrast, showed no understanding of the art whatsoever. This accusation might be unfair, since there’s no evidence here that he tried to put on a Kabuki play to start with. But then what on earth was this doing in the Kabukiza? There was nothing whatsoever in the mercifully short 80 minutes that non-Kabuki actors couldn’t handle with ease, and the only thing remotely Kabuki-like was the use of onnagata. Worst of all in this catalogue of horrors, Noda used canned music rather than the real thing, an ominous sign for the future. This is already being done in concerts and musicals (Shiki’s Phantom, for example, apparently uses a tape), and small theatres may have no choice given the economics of theatre. But in Kabuki? At the Kabukiza? Can’t we at the very least have live music for our ¥12,000? I had hoped to hear a nagauta original, but I should know better than to hope. This saddened me.

Finally, the production couldn’t be enjoyed on its own terms but depended largely on a knowledge of the opera, again simply making fun of those elements without any attempt to transform them into something meaningful. For example, the various musical clips from the opera running through the show are used evidently just to mark the equivalent moment in the Noda piece rather than serve a true function in the show. Verdi uses music to deepen the drama and carry it forward; Noda just scores cheap points. The first number, a brief snatch of “Celeste Aida”, did make me grin because it was unexpected. Thereafter, it was annoying, like someone showing off to his friends – “Hey, look, guys, I know this aria!” – without understanding the piece of music used or the purpose of music in general. Without a knowledge of the arias in the first place, they add nothing at all to the characters or story. They only make sense in comparison with the original, which does not work to the advantage of the Kabuki piece, especially piped in from a sound system. The death scene at the end, played against a classical soundtrack (I don’t think it was even Verdi), was nearly unwatchable for this reason; the music sounded in context like elevator music rather than anything profound. This is true as well of other touches, such as the elephant – an elephant? in Japan? – and the shoehorning of “Radames” into an impossible Japanese name. It smelled of desperation for a cheap laugh rather than anything contributing to the drama as such. It’s all a shame because the idea of a pure Japanese version had such promise. Even Disney managed to create an Aida that, for all its faults, was understandable on its own terms. This looked slapped together almost at random, with no overall vision whatsoever.

It’s impossible to judge the actors in this mess since nothing called for depth or any real acting. The two fortune tellers, Senjaku and especially Fukusuke, were quite funny, and Mitsugoro as Aida’s father Oda Nobuhide added weight to a poorly written role. Everyone else was competent and little more, including Kanzaburo and Shichinosuke as Amneris and Aida, whose talents were basically wasted.

Noda is a popular director, and Shochiku is presumably laughing all the way to the bank. But I don’t understand what Kabuki gains in the long run. Sacrificing quality for this muck, lucrative or not, risks making audiences cynical in the end, as I’ve seen first hand with musicals, which are no longer able to attract general viewers other than fans of the star. This show seems to have been well received, including praise on most blog sites I’ve read, so presumably it will be judged a success. But Noda’s bag of tricks is very limited. Once audiences tire of these trite parodies, it’s hard to imagine them coming back for more, especially at these prices. And this show can hardly be expected to win over new audiences for Kabuki itself. It was a wasted opportunity in every way. Ah, well.

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