Weaving a web of destiny wherein ambition’s caught

by Rei Sasaguchi

In 1957, Akira Kurosawa made a remarkable movie titled “Kumonosu-jo (Spider’s Web Castle),” adapted from William Shakespeare’s “Macbeth.” The film is still admired today for its spectacular shots and the striking performances of Toshiro Mifune as the principal character Washizu Taketoki and Isuzu Yamada as his formidable wife Asaji.

Kichiemon Nakamura as Washizu Taketoki (Macbeth) and Rei Asami as Asaji (Lady Macbeth) in Masafumi Saito’s stage version of Akira Kurosawa’s “Kumonosu-jo,” based on Shakespeare’s “Macbeth”

+ A stage version of “Kumonosu-jo” has now been produced by the Shochiku Co. and is currently being presented at the Shinbashi Enbujo Theater in Tokyo through June 28.

Director Masafumi Saito, a graduate of Waseda University who trained in Shinpa (New School) theater and has been involved with the Shinbashi Enbujo for 14 years, has done an admirable job writing a script based on Yushi Odajima’s 1977 translation of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” and on Kurosawa’s “Kumonosu-jo.”

Shinpa drama was the first modern style to emerge during the Meiji Era (1868-1912), when it challenged popular kabuki with its realistic acting, topical themes and the use of actresses. At the beginning of the 20th century, Shinpa had come to dominate the Japanese theater world and attracted leading writers to pen scripts for it. Later in the century it lost impetus somewhat as a revivified kabuki monopolized traditional-style theatrics, while the even more Westernized Shingeki led the way in new directions. However, Saito’s “Kumonosu-jo” shows there is still some life in Shinpa.

Following Kurosawa’s film version, Saito’s “Kumonosu-jo” is set in early 16th-century Japan, in the turbulent period when numerous warlords contended with each other for power. Saito’s script in three acts and 19 scenes progresses around Kumonosu Castle’s residential quarters and battlements and the surrounding deep forest, Kumode no Mori (Spider Wood).

The play opens with a hauntingly beautiful scene in which Washizu Taketoki (i.e. Macbeth, played by Kichiemon Nakamura) and Miki Yoshiaki (Banquo; Sadanji Ichikawa) encounter Fate (Shakespeare’s Weird Sisters, reduced to one as in Kurosawa’s film, and played here by Shinnosuke Ikehata, the TV personality better known as “Peter”).

Kichiemon and Shinnosuke “Peter” Ikehata as Fate

The action of the play follows Kurosawa’s film closely, except for the final scene of the death of Taketoki/Macbeth. As the camouflaged enemy soldiers close in on the castle, he makes up his mind to fight in order to decide his destiny. Though wounded and exhausted, Taketoki tries to lead Asaji/Lady Macbeth (Rei Asami) to safety from the fallen castle. When he reaches a spot on the edge of Spider Wood, which symbolizes his fate, Taketoki is shot to death, as Asaji, by now completely deranged, looks on uncomprehendingly.

Out of the universal crime-does-not-pay theme of “Macbeth,” scriptwriter Saito has created a melodrama more appealing to the Japanese audience. This emphasizes the relationship of Taketoki and Asaji, who are joined by bonds of love despite — or perhaps through — the grave crimes they commit together.

In “Macbeth,” Lady Macbeth dies by suicide in the end, and when the news of her death reaches him, Macbeth simply says, “She should have died hereafter.” In “Kumonosu-jo,” Taketoki remains gentle and loving toward Asaji even after she becomes a pathetic, broken woman, and he tries to protect her until the last moment.

Rei Asami, a former otoko-yaku (male roles) star in the Takarazuka all-woman musical troupe, has played Lady Macbeth before, in 1987. In her strong performance in this production, interestingly, she is wearing kimono on stage for the first time.

Saito says he is extremely happy with this production of “Kumonosu-jo.” He says he has enjoyed working with a cast of actors and actresses from various backgrounds, especially Kichiemon, who is a prominent kabuki male lead, in the part of Taketoki.

Saito is delighted also to have Sadanji as Taketoki’s friend and rival Yoshiaki, as well as Kasho Nakamura as Noriyasu, adviser to Tsuzuki Kuniharu (Naoyuki Kanno), the lord of Kumonosu Castle who is murdered by Taketoki. The use of these kabuki actors shows the close continuing relationship between Shinpa and kabuki.

“I believe in the power of kabuki actors like Kichiemon and Sadanji,” says Saito, “because they are so well trained in both stylized and realistic kabuki acting that they can act easily in any other theatrical form.”

Also noteworthy in this production are the performances of Taro Hanabusa, the only remaining Shinpa actor who plays female roles, as Karigane, Asaji’s faithful maid, and Munehiko Shigeyama, a young kyogen actor, as Kunimaru, the son of the murdered lord of Spider’s Web Castle.