Aladdin (Japanese version)

  • アラジン (Aladdin)

8/8/15 (Sat), Tokyo

I had heard good things about this production of Aladdin, which is completely sold out for nearly a year in advance. I’m always wary of the Gekidan Shiki group because of its Kabuki-like acting style, but as a fan of the movie and still not having seen the show on Broadway, I accepted quickly when a friend came up with a last-minute ticket. His tickets came apparently from a fan from Shizuoka who is seeing this for her seventh time and had two extra seats. I was surprised at the relative lack of children in the audience, but I suppose normal families have no chance against the many rabid Shiki fans like her who are willing to travel an hour and a half on the Shinkansen dozens of times to see the same show. A sad fact for theater fans, but Disney (whose The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid are also successfully managed in Japan by Shiki) must be laughing all the way to the bank.

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Drum Tao

  • Drum Tao

7/24/15 (Fri), Tokyo

A performance of Japanese taiko drums dressed up in a dramatic frame. Drum Tao is a group of young well-built drummers and athletes from Oita Prefecture in Kyushu that has apparently been around a while – the program (unusually distributed free) says they’ve performed in 400 cities in 20 countries. But they were new to me.

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Hana-Bi

  • Hana-Bi

6/24/15 (Wed)

I wasn’t wild about the idea of a Kitano (“Beat”) Takeshi film given its reputation for over-the-top violence, but Hana-Bi is one of several flicks by him – “by” in a big sense, meaning directed, written and starring – that are widely considered modern classics, especially overseas. So I figured it was about time to check it out.   Continue reading

The Closet; Loose Cannons

  • Le Placard (The Closet), 5/31/15 (Sun)
  • Mine Viganti (Loose Cannons), 6/6/15 (Sat)

A mention in a newspaper column prompted me to look for The Closet. I tried to buy a download on Amazon and Apple, but they made it so difficult that I just watched it on YouTube.

An accountant in a large company is so dull as to be almost invisible. He is ignored by his colleagues, and neither his ex-wife nor his teenage son will return his calls. Furthermore, he overhears talk that he is going to be axed by the firm. Depressed and lonely, he contemplates jumping off his building. A neighbor aims to help by concocting a scheme: he anonymously mails the company a doctored image of the guy in a leather suit with his hands all over another guy, strongly implying that he is gay. That apparent revelation makes it impossible for the company to fire him, and more than that, makes him suddenly an object of fascination for the entire firm.  Continue reading

Silent films: Kid Commotion, The Dawning Sky (子宝騒動、明け行く空 )

  • Silent films: 子宝騒動、明け行く空 (Kid Commotion, The Dawning Sky)

5/19/15 (Tues), Tokyo

These were silent films by Torajiro Saito, evidently known in his day as film studio Shochiku’s “king of comedy”. They were narrated by a female benshi, Akiko Sasaki, who sat at the side of the screen and voiced all the roles as well as narrating non-dialogue sections in her own words. The music was newly composed and played live on a keyboard. The setup directly recalled (and perhaps stemmed from) Japan’s Bunraku puppet theater, where the narrator and musician sit in full view of the audience on a raised platform beside the stage and give voice to the voiceless puppets. The mixture of film and live performance seemed very modern somehow, so it’s interesting to note that Japan was doing it nearly a century ago.   Continue reading

Two Sergio Leone classics

  • The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, 8/14/17 (Mon)
  • Once Upon a Time in the West, 8/19/17 (Sat)

These films, said to be the pinnacle of the Italian “spaghetti Westerns” (known oddly in Japan as “macaroni Westerns”), had been strongly recommended by a European friend. I was skeptical. The Western is probably the most distinctive film genre of the American cinema given the phenomenon at its core: the vastness of the landscapes, the lure of uncultivated and unknown territories, the opportunity to create new societies from nothing but soil and daring – there is nothing remotely comparable in the European experience. The bulk of settlers were not running from persecution or war but, piqued by curiosity or ambition or boredom, toward the infinite possibilities of a new life that they themselves would have to build. The courage of those willing to plunge into the void on the basis of sheer hope is a situation that lends itself to broad archetypal characters, and the best of the Westerns reflect this sense of a land still coming together, fueled by an optimism built into the American psyche that anything is possible. I was curious how a non-American would approach this.

The results were fascinating. The films, both by the Italian director Sergio Leone, reminded me of 19th-century Kabuki writer Kawatake Mokuami, whose tales of dried-up samurai and low-life villains punctured the heroics of classic Kabuki drama.   Continue reading