Eternal Chikamatsu

Eternal Chikamatsu

12 March 2016 (Sat), Tokyo

I decided rather on a whim to see this show, knowing only that it’s a riff on Chikamatsu Monzaemon’s 18th-century classic  Love Suicide at Amijima (心中天網島) where characters from that play somehow interact with similar modern-day counterparts. I was interested in remarks made by the director, David Leveaux, that suggested he (along with the scriptwriter) did not have a good understanding of the notion of suicide in the context of Chikamatsu’s shows. I like both the leads, Fukatsu Eri and Shichinosuke, so I figured it might be worth catching. The show was sold out, presumably on the strength of the two main actors, but I managed to find two seats online.

Haru (Fukatsu) has become a prostitute in modern-day Osaka to pay off debts following her husband’s suicide. She receives a visit from the brother-in-law of one of her regulars. The regular, it seems, is completely taken by her and spending money that he, with a wife and two children, cannot afford. The visitor offers her a considerable sum to cut off all ties. She laughs at the thought that anyone would believe the lies of a prostitute and, after negotiating a higher payout, readily makes a recording telling the client not to contact her again. As she walks along a bridge that night, she thinks back on her late husband’s suicide, the suggestion being (I think) that his death has soured her on falling in love again. There she encounters a mysterious woman, who turns out to be Oharu (Shichinosuke), the woman whose alleged joint suicide with her lover in the 18th century is said to have inspired the Chikamatsu play. A narrator oddly emerges at some point to guide Haru through Oharu’s tale as recounted in the older play, which has many parallels with Haru’s own life. In the end, Haru steps into the story and halts Oharu and Jihei on the bridge as they race to their deaths, convincing the young girl that life is precious and that suicide is not the answer. All seems to end happily ever after.

This play was confused and confusing on several levels. Haru was an observer of the earlier story as told by the narrator, while at the same time participating in it. If the story has actually come to life, what’s the narrator doing there? And if not, how is Haru interacting with the characters? The writer wasn’t able to join these strands together in any persuasive way.

More damaging was, as feared, a misconception of suicide as presented in the classic love-suicide plays (Ten no Amijima dates from 1721). The characters in those old plays are drawing from a Buddhist belief that a proactive choice to end this life together will ensure that they are reunited as husband and wife in a future life. The scriptwriter in today’s show sees them as passive characters turning to death as the only escape from a bitter life, a very modern reading. Chikamatsu portrays them as taking control of their destinies by moving forward to the next life, as actors rather than reactors. The Western idea is that life is a single isolated event lasting for a fixed time, while Buddhists see the present life as one of a series of events represented by multiple rebirths leading ultimately to enlightenment. Haru’s arguments about the sanctity of life and futility of suicide are perfectly understandable in this day and age, especially in light of Japan’s high-ish suicide rate and its understanding or acceptance (to some extent) of suicide as a way out. But the implication that this interpretation is superior to Oharu’s is rather pretentious, especially in the context of Chikamatsu’s world. Oharu thinks of herself not as avoiding life but as choosing a better future. It’s impossible to compare the two positions without delving deeper into the subject, something that might be impossible for a drama. The show comes off as trivial. It might be unfair to single out the author since the play, while based apparently on a idea by Kanzaburo, was presumably shaped to some extent by Leveaux. The resolution in particular feels too pat for a normal Japanese drama. (Articles I read subsequently suggested that Leveaux had a strong hand in shaping the dialogue via interpreters, which may explain why it sounded so phony at times.)

The production itself was well handled. The small room set up for Haru’s assignations gave a nice claustrophobic feel, backed by suggestions of numerous other such rooms behind with various people wandering in the low lighting. The bridge revolved to offer several perspectives and was taken apart and reassembled to provide a continuous path as the lovers walked (something I remember from Shunkin, which was also helmed by a British director). The moment when Oharu appears before Haru on the bridge was beautifully realized, using the umbrella to memorable effect. The ending on the same bridge, when Oharu makes a lightning-fast change to emerge as Haru’s dead husband (the first time I’ve seen Shinchinosuke as a man other than the cross-dressing Benten Kozo), was particularly good.

The brief bar scene, where Haru sees her regular with his wife, was fine as well. I liked the red-lit slats used there and elsewhere, which recalled the facades of Yoshiwara brothels. The director chose to present the Edo Era scenes in naturalistic rather than Kabuki style, which made sense since he wouldn’t know how to direct it anyway – the narrator acknowledges the presence of the kurogo at one point, which was a weak joke – and the actors probably couldn’t handle it, especially with Shichinosuke there for comparison. But it might have been an interesting approach with the right actors. The lighting effects were superb throughout, adding much to the atmosphere of the piece.

Fukatsu Eri was excellent as Haru, with just the right self-absorbed tone. I loved the girlish voice she put on for her customer, along with the instant transition to practical businesswoman when he made his unexpected offer. The script let her down as it proceeded, and she wasn’t able to do much for the final scene, where she lectures Oharu on the evils of suicide. But she was an asset to the show overall. Shichinosuke brought class to his role and was the only one who brought a specific acting style to match the Edo Era setting as opposed to the generic portrayals of the other. That might not be fair, since the similar acting styles might have been intentional as a way of showing the similarity in human needs in the old and modern world. But I much prefer the contrast that Shichinosuke brought, since it was a reminder of the significant differences that did exist in the Edo past and Westernized present (the view of suicide being just one). In any case, his portrayal was stylized but utterly convincing in that context. He was a perfect choice for the role. The best of the rest was Jihei’s wife, who was unexpectedly restrained in a part that is usually played for overt sentiment. Nakashima Shu had an interesting take on the (female) brothel owner but couldn’t breathe life into the uninteresting (male) narrator.

The show felt like it was half finished. But I’m not sure it’s worth finishing. It may be back given it’s strong reception at the box office (tickets were gone before it even opened), but I won’t be there.

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