Tokyo Kandenchi putting a little spark back into the Bard

by Nobuko Tanaka

For my first theater outing of 2002, I went to see “A Midsummer-Night’s Dream” by Tokyo Kandenchi (Tokyo Dry Battery). In this — their 25th anniversary performance, but their first-ever brush with the Bard of Avon — the company made no pretense of striving to scale great literary heights, but instead came up with a funky, fun version of the classic comedy to celebrate both their own birthday and the New Year.

Established by twentysomething actors Akira Emoto, Toshiki Ayata and Bengaru in 1977, Tokyo Kandenchi first began to flourish in the 1980s when leading dramatist Ryo Iwamatsu came on board and contributed hugely toward the development of its unique, humorous style. Essentially unchanged, and loved by audiences for a quarter of a century since then, the company’s distinctive humor draws on the quirks of daily life. Spurning slapstick and crudity, loud laughter and shrieks, this comedy possesses a subtlety that sets audiences giggling and sends them home realizing there’s happiness to be had on even the dullest day.

Due to this understated style, though Tokyo Kandenchi has enjoyed constant support from its fans, it has never entered the showbiz mainstream. Nonetheless, while playing small venues on the fringe, the company — whose lead actors generally direct as well — has remained true to its own quest for wit combined with the magic of theater itself.

On the day I went to see the play at the 200-seat Suzunari Theater in Shimokitazawa, the Mecca of Japan’s contemporary theater scene in the 1980s, fans of all ages were lined up outside in the wintry chill. Once inside, as us lucky ones crammed cheek-by-jowl on the bench-seating looked round at those squatting on cushions in front of the stage and in the aisles, it became clear that Tokyo Kandenchi was playing to an audience way over capacity. Not the most favorable conditions for appreciating a play — crammed into this old wooden theater as if on a rush-hour Yamanote Line train.

This seemed hardly to matter, though, once the curtain was raised. Directed by Emoto, the production was as unmistakably a Tokyo Kandenchi take on Shakespeare as “Blazing Saddles” is a Mel Brooks version of the western. Even the costumes were there to amuse, with actresses sporting long dresses with garish applique and Oberon, King of the Fairies (Emoto), not in stage tights but clad in traditional Japanese long-johns with his shirt tucked in. The lines in Japanese were faithful enough to the original, even with poetical asides, though their delivery was — deliberately and hilariously — rattled off as if by an uncomprehending junior high school troupe.

As the actors began parodying themselves, delivering in stilted accents English synopses of the speeches they’d just made, quiet laughter filled the theater along with a warm, laid-back mood. Though the play was faithfully presented, random anachronisms served to up the laughter-level — an enka singer suddenly appeared for about a minute in the middle of the play, wearing a kimono, and Puck was played as a chatty obasan. This self-deprecating, sarcastic manner served to also debunk the Bard’s iconic status in the drama world.

Indeed, in this 25th anniversary production, Tokyo Kandenchi was clearly not aiming for a definitive “Midsummer-Night’s Dream,” but rather using the play as a tool to display the original, intelligently irreverent spirit at the heart of the company itself. From the cheap, school-playlike sets to the quirky touches — overacting, ever so slightly, on-stage kisses and hugs that may appear to Japanese eyes quite strange — everything conspired excellently to express the catabolic potential of theater.

Though physically enduring the crowded conditions was like a penance, to be able to send its audiences away from even such conditions with a feeling of magic is surely the secret of Tokyo Kandenchi’s long-term popularity.

It is, too, a magic that TV producers were quick to realize soon after the company was formed. The group’s principal actors and actress (the aforesaid three founders, plus Junji Takada and actresses Yoneko Matsukane and Kazue Tsunogae) were spotted and swiftly elevated to regular tarento status thanks to parts in TV dramas — a crossover that has since become a well-trodden route for stage actors. In particular, Emoto has become one of Japan’s best-known movie actors — he won the best actor prize at the 1998 Japanese Academy Awards for his performance in the title role of “Kanzo Sensei (Dr. Akagi)” directed by Shohei Imamura, and has taken roles in “Shall We Dance?” and “Unagi (The Eel),” the winner of the Palme d’Or at 1997′s Cannes Film Festival.

Despite all this fame and fortune, though, even if Tokyo Kandenchi is blessed with another 25 years, the group will remain true to its independent approach to playing. And it also goes without saying that people attuned to the actors’ spirit and sensibility will continue to squeeze happily into cozy theaters wherever they perform to share in their unique and illuminating wit.