The Rat Burglar (鼠小僧)

  • Kabuki: 鼠小僧  (The Rat Burglar)

3/6/15 (Fri), film

I managed to get myself switched to an All Nippon Airways flight to New York when my United flight was suddenly cancelled. One advantage was a good selection of Japanese films, and I was surprised to see some Kabuki selections. I had avoided this particular 2003 production before since I didn’t want to spend money on Noda Hideki, who wrote and directed it. But it was a big hit, and I figured it wouldn’t hurt to know what was out there. And at free, the price was right. 

No surprise in the results. It had all Noda’s signature tricks – the unnatural movements, the artificial frenzy at the opening, the big moment of truth late in the show, the overdramatic and would-be profound ending, even the one-time joke names (here, two characters named Santa 三太, in a story taking place on December 24 – in Edo). The older Santa (Kanzaburo) is a greedy coffin maker who hatches a scheme to get back his late brother’s money, which had been left to a neighbor – who, it turns out, had forged the will. After many complications not worth going into, he becomes confused with the famed thief Nezumi Kozo (the Rat Burglar) and is put on trial. He knows that the respected judge and the neighbor were both having affairs with a widow, information that could ruin the careful reputation of all. In a trial reminiscent of the Woody Allen flick The Front, he is offered a chance at clemency if he agrees to a small white lie.

The show’s plot had potential. But it plays at such a frantic pace for 90% of the show that it becomes exhausting – the rapid-fire shtick, the funny faces, the pratfalls, the dumb dialogue. Does the coffin maker really have to be so pushy for people to die? Do they have to have the (literal) toilet humor? Do characters really have to scream at each other in normal conversations? Did… But the list is way too long. It’s the Three Stooges on steroids, and for two hours it’s a stretch. The trial scene was effective if only because it finally slowed things down, as per the usual method at this point in Noda’s shows, and Santa’s difficult decision was well thought out. I wonder what another director and good dramaturge could do with this material.

One part interesting for me was the appearance of the ghosts. They had the typical look of Kabuki ghosts but, instead of haunting the coffin maker, told him they had come back to save him – in other words, this being December 24 and Santa being a greedy old tightwad, the situation was right out of A Christmas Carol. The ghosts noted amusingly that they didn’t have much else to do in winter, ghosts being summer phenomena in Japan. I did enjoy that brief scene.

It was good to see the much-missed Kanzaburo in action. It’s amazing that he could perform at this super-high pitch every day for three weeks running. He made a lot of the material work through the sheer force of his personality, though it still quickly became overindulgent. He had ample support from Yajuro, Kikugoro (nice as the judge), Hashinosuke and his sons Kankuro (the obvious choice for the title role in a revival) and Shichinosuke. The sets were nice, making plentiful use of drops and the revolving stage, including an interesting opening scene that turns out to be a play-within-a-play. Audiences at least get what they pay for in the physical production.

Given Noda’s large fan base, I suppose this draws new audiences into the Kabukiza. The questions are whether it keeps them there and whether it contributes to the development of the art form. The first is unlikely and the second laughable. The show was neither better nor worse than I had imagined. I’m glad I didn’t pay for it.

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