Saturday, August 23, 2008

On "Chushingura: The Forty-Seven Samurai" adapted by Nakamura Matagoro II and James R. Brandon **

I finally, this weekend, after several weekends of either heavy freelance work or heavy socializing (out-of-town visitors; great concerts), have a chance to read a couple of Japanese plays I've had my eye on but which appear in a book much too large for me to simply take with me, in my backpack, to work so that I could read them on the bus or during lunch. Alas, I did take a walk this evening and have a girl in a car who I made eye contact with or who made eye contact with me gesture for me to come over and talk. Shy self that I am, I merely waved. Maybe I could have had a date. Instead, I rushed home to finish what I'd planned--to read these two Japanese plays. My date, this evening was with Chushingura and with Makoto Satoh. One could do worse, I suppose.

The version of Chushingura that I read was adapted for the stage in 1979. The play itself is a traditional one that has been adapted for stage over the course of the last two and a half centuries. Modern versions shorten it for modern audiences (the full play can take fourteen hours). The story is that of a famous series of incidents that occurred in Japan between 1701 and 1703. One nobleman slightly injures another (in the play, it is because the other is making passes at the first nobleman's wife); as a result, the first nobleman is ordered to kill himself by the shogun. The nobleman's samurai/retainers feel obliged to revenge their master's death and so plot to kill the other nobleman. The samurai, in avenging their master's death, do something noble but also break the law. The result is that they too are ordered to kill themselves. In Japan, at this time, ritual suicide is an honorable death--as compared to simply being killed by one's enemies. This adaptation covers only up to the point where the forty-seven samurai get their revenge. Chushingura is a kabuki play, and I can see why none of the other anthologies of Japanese literature contained kabuki within them. It is does not translate very well to our traditions. I credit the adaptors with bringing something to the stage that would allow people to watch the play more easily. But for me, sword fighting and martial arts theater is a hard sell, and Chushingura, unfortunately, never made it past that for me (unlike, say, a film like Hero, which ends up seeming like so much more).

1 comment:

Narukami said...

I agree that simply reading a kabuki play might leave the reader wondering just what all the fuss is about. Unlike Shakespeare, kabuki plays do not "read" well. It is a bit like reading Swan Lake in laban Notation.

Kabuki is a performance art and must be seen in performance to be truly understood and appreciated.

The adaptation you read was produced at the University of Hawai'i in 1978-79. Student actors trained for an entire year under the supervision of Nakamura Matagoro and his disciples Nakamura Matazo and Nakamura Matashiro. Training included not only Kabuki acting and Dance, but also music (gidayu chanting, shamisen & percussion) costume and history.

The 3+ Hour production itself had a sold out run in Honolulu and the neighbor islands as well as a national tour of the mainland US.

A sampling of reviews:

"The 47 Samurai is not the over-weight, grunting samurai-western many of us have been exposed to in Japanese films. It is alternately impish, powerful, touching, funny, bawdy, sad, delicate, graceful and melodramatic.

The Kabuki Hawai'i Troupe is superb. To single out any individual or individuals would detract from what is a company performance of the highest caliber.

One particular scene demands mention, however. The scene in which Hangan commits hara-kiri is one of the most powerful I have ever witnessed."
-Arthur S Waldstein Boston Globe

"Hangan's suicide, which makes up most of the action in Act Two is a marvelous example of economical, controlled tension. The outcome is never in question. There is a scarcity of dialogue and practically no movement. Yet attention is focused so clearly on the action and silent pauses are used so well the audience practically breathes in unison.

The focus of the play is on loyalty and duty, but its real strength lies in several well-defined characters and many moments of highly pitched, sustained emotion.

Director Nakamura Matagoro has done a remarkable job in shaping his student cast which has been preparing for the current production all year."
-Joseph T Rozmiarek Honolulu Star Bulletin

"It is Hangan's suicide scene that sees '47 Samurai' come to full flower, blending its elements so successfully that the single scene forms the core of the entire work, to give it shape, meaning and form.

In an age where theatrical convention calls for real-looking blood and real-looking mayhem, this kabuki play confronts an audience with something blatantly 'pretend.' Somehow that 'pretending', which is exercised in almost slow-motion precision, becomes more real and vivid than the most convincing sort of special theatrical effects.

At this moment, kabuki becomes more than an exotic performing form; it becomes a universal truth." -Pierre Bowman Honolulu Advertiser

Text is important to any theatrical performance, and texts must be studied in order to gain a full understanding of a particular theatre form. However, in the case of kabuki, the actual performance is critical.

That you took the time to read this play at all is remarkable -- most people would not, so you are to be commended for your cultural acumen and intellectual curiosity.

Unless you have an opportunity to visit Japan and see kabuki live you might try watching it on video. Marty Gross Films (on the web) offer a pretty good catalog of kabuki plays on DVD. They are not cheap, so perhaps you might find them someplace for rental or on loan from a library.

I do hope you have an opportunity to see kabuki in performance -- I think you will be impressed.

Best of luck to you.