Shun-Kin: Theater Review
UCLA presents a staged interpretation of the written work of the late, acclaimed Japanese author Jun-ichiro Tanizaki.
It is a core Occidental fantasy that darkness is the absence of light. Instead, there are many varieties to be discerned in the shadows and arguably as much illumination. The act and art of seeing requires a refined appreciation for the ambiguity of the obscure, even opaque.
The world tour of the acclaimed production of Jun’ichiro Tanizaki’s Shun-Kin created jointly in 2008 by two esteemed companies, Simon McBurney’s Complicite and Mansai Nomura’s Setagaya Public Theatre, finally arrives in Los Angeles, courtesy of UCLA’s reinvigorated Center for the Art of Performance and in association with the Radar L.A. international festival. A boldly accomplished enterprise undeterred by the inescapable dangers of cross-cultural interpretation, Shun-Kin captures the spirit and essence of Tanizaki in a theatrical language that may consort with Japanese performance traditions yet still communicates in recognizably Western idioms of stagecraft – notwithstanding its principled use of Japanese dialogue (translated in titles).
Shun-kin (as a youth, a doll voiced by Junko Uchida; later embodied by Eri Fukatsu) is blinded at nine, purportedly by a jealous governess of a less-favored sibling. She finds purpose and her talent in the study the shamisen, the traditional fretless three-string instrument (played onstage for her by Honjoh Hidetaro, also limning the role of her harshly disciplining teacher). Her family hires a farmer’s son Sasuke (Songha, later as a blind old man by Yoshi Oida), only three years older, to lead her about and tend to her needs. Mistress and servant quickly evolve into an intensely symbiotic relationship of dependence and dominance, and eventually into a so-called “functional” sexual relationship. More piercingly, Shun-kin assumes the role of brutal master while Sasuke relishes the sweet masochisms of unrestrained devotion. Her punitive beatings partake of a mutual erotic charge that bespeaks the mordant kinkiness so characteristic of Tanizaki and, by inference, of Japanese culture. Power and passion are revealed to be interlocked forces, conferring both insight and opacity.
Tanizaki (1886-1965) was indisputably one of the preeminent Japanese writers of the past century (The Makioka Sisters, Kagi, Irezumi, Manji), a modernist sensibility with a fascination for obsession, which he routinely linked to the central authority of tradition in his society. Both works on which this show is based were published in 1933, as brutal Japanese militarism was ascendant, already having occupied Manchuria. Tanizaki’s subversive innovation was to reveal the underlying psychosexual aberration of this national mania while lovingly relishing the delicacies of perversion itself. He mastered the challenging trick of satirizing with unstinting compassion, evoking a besotted appreciation for the exquisite pleasures without forfeiting a sober irony for the futility of repeating an action over and over again, stuck in the unyielding pattern of compulsive behavior.
In his remarkably faithful rendering (which, notwithstanding extensive adaptation, ostentatiously eschews any hint of a writing credit), McBurney manages to find means both concrete and suggestive to render Tanizaki’s conceits dramatic. Black-clad bunraku-style puppet manipulators shadow and appear to animate Shun-Kin’s every move, whether she is being portrayed by a doll or a human body (the copulation scene where the mannequin blasts itself into body parts makes a particularly startling set-piece). Narrators abound and overlap in relating the plot. There is Tanizaki himself (Kentaro Mizuki) “investigating” the curious history of Shin-Ken (although despite its apparently documentary-like revelation of facts, the tale itself was a fictional invention, the premise pilfered, as McBurney reveals in a superb program note, from an obscure Thomas Hardy short story). A radio actress (Ryoko Tateishi) enters a darkened NHK studio to read the text, prompted by a brusque, unseen director, and finds her own relationship with a much younger man influenced by the events she recites. That most welcome veteran retainer of Peter Brook, Oida, narrates not only as old Sasuke but also at the start of the show, apparently speaking as himself.
It sounds more complicated than it actually plays, because McBurney’s fluid staging gradually distills the intricate structures into a coherent and accessible tapestry of precise actions. The complexities emerge most cogently through a progress into simplicity. In a final coup de theatre, he blinds us with light, plunging us into the glare of that illumination that resides where we cannot see.
In a decision of rigorous integrity, McBurney chooses to preserve the entire height of the high Freud proscenium frame visually uncompromised by supertitles. This is also a decision of distracting inconvenience, as those stage pictures demand uninterrupted attention, and the placement of titles on the sides of the auditorium requires incessant distraction of one’s eyes. Like the characters, we must just resign ourselves to adjusting to the disability and even taking pleasure in the pain.
Venue: Freud Playhouse, Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA (runs through Sept. 29)
Cast: Ryoko Tateishi, Eri Fukatsu, Junko Uchida, Yoshi Oida, Songha, Yasuyo Mochizuki, Honjoh Hidetaro, Kentaro Mizuki, Keitoku Takata, Kaho Aso
Director: Simon McBurney
Playwright: Based on the short story “A Portrait of Shunkin” and the essay “In Praise of Shadows” by Jun’ichiro Tanizaki
Set designers: Merle Hensel, Rumi Matsui
Lighting designer: Paul Anderson
Sound designer : Gareth Fry
Music: Honjoh Hidetaro
Costume designer: Christina Cunningham
Video: Finn Ross
Puppetry: Blind Summit Theatre