Romance at the edge of reason

Noda dares to present love's 'I' story as a 'we' drama

by Nobuko Tanaka

“I always believed it was taboo to portray madness on stage, and I never dared to do it before,” Hideki Noda writes in the program notes to “Urikotoba (Fighting talk/Words for sale),” his latest enterprise as writer/director, now playing at Spiral Hall in Tokyo’s Aoyama district.

It is true that insanity, by its often sensational nature, may serve to grab an audience’s attention. However, in this dramatization from the celebrated poetry anthology “Chieko Shou” by Kotaro Takamura (1883-1956), Noda — fresh from his Grand Prix award for his groundbreaking kabuki production of “Togitatsu no Utare (Togitatsu’s Revenge)” at last month’s Asahi Performing Arts Prize — spurns any populist angles and instead delves deep into the nature of love and devotion, and of dreams and dreamers.

That the play’s real-life heroine did end her days in a hospital for the insane is far from the main focus of the piece. Instead, the play begins with a teenaged Chieko bursting through a paper background astride a bicycle, full of vigor in the days before she met Takamura, the eminent poet, writer and sculptor whom she married in 1915. Symbolizing both Chieko’s own hopes, and those of many women in her day who sought to break through the social constraints imposed upon them, it is a startling opener to this 90-minute tour de force described by its creator as “not an ‘I’ story or poem, but a ‘we’ drama.”

Though Takamura’s poems were all dedicated to Chieko — played superbly by Shinobu Otake, the ex-wife of TV celebrity Sanma, and once romantically involved with Noda himself — in this play Noda reverses the roles, telling the story of Chieko’s life through her eyes, not his words of adoration. The poet appears as a symbolic figure, played by violinist Tsuyoshi Watanabe, who speaks not one word but uses music to express feelings.

The play traces Chieko’s life from her upbringing in a rich family in Fukushima where, in her teens and early 20s, she typified the new generation of feisty young women labeled moga (modern girls). With ambitions to be an artist, Cheiko’s direction changes utterly after meeting Takamura, and she resolves to subordinate herself entirely and become his devoted partner. However, the reality of poverty and city life (“there is no sky in Tokyo”) faced by this young country girl — whom her husband described as “purity incarnate” — brings about the gradual loss first of her mental balance, and then of her mind.

Otake’s portrayal of the heroine’s descent from the heights of love and passion is nothing short of marvelous, as she confronts us not with outbursts of violent madness but with a creeping unease that led ultimately to madness, despite her husband’s warm blanket of love.

Or was it a warm blanket — and not, perhaps, a set of shackles stifling her individuality in the name of his egoistic joy in loving? The insistent love poetry offers no clues, leaving us to wonder.

Our speculation is given voice by a third character, of Noda’s creation, a maid (also played by Otake) who speaks Chieko’s other side. Complaining about Takamura’s idealism and his inattention to reality, this figure reveals Chieko’s own flight from reality into a fantasy world and ultimately to a hospital ward.

Noda’s masterful drama confounds the pure romance of Takamura’s poetry by exploring the real lives he discerns there. In this “we” drama of Chieko and Takamura — and also, perhaps, of Otake and Noda — this prizewinning writer and director has created a classic human drama. Though it may seem premature to say so, “Urikotoba” is certain to be one of the best things on Japan’s stages this year.