A total feast for the eyes

by Victoria James

This is total theater. Shinkyogeki, new-style Beijing Opera, is a combination of almost every performing art known to the East and the West. It should be a cross-cultural mess — but it’s not. At its best, as in the staging of “Yang-kui-fei and Abe-no-Nakamaro,” which is now touring Japan, it’s breathtaking.

The drama tells of the legendary beauty Yang-kui-fei (719-756), concubine of the sixth T’ang emperor, who — with the assistance of the Japanese ambassador, Abe-no-Nakamaro — escapes to Japan during an uprising. It is being staged here to mark the 30th anniversary of the postwar normalization of relations between China and Japan — which explained why heavyweight politician Ryutaro Hashimoto was in the audience and why the paparazzi were waiting outside on the opening night last Wednesday.

A Beijing Opera production is a true symbol of reconciliation between the two former foes, as the man who singlehandedly revived the genre, Mei Lanfang (1894-1961), famously refused to perform during the 1937-45 Japanese occupation of China. The master, who specialized in female roles, grew a beard and mustache as a sign of his defiance, and did not return to the stage until 1946.

Mei introduced Beijing Opera to the world through his play “Farewell My Concubine” (made into a hit film by Chen Kaige in 1993) and overhauled the genre by, for example, adding scenes of dramatic swordplay.

Shinkyogeki takes that updating even further. “Yang-kui-fei and Abe-no-Nakamaro” boasts martial-arts combat at the speed-of-light pace of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” as well as spectacular dance numbers that are part-ballet, part-Broadway.

As with all theater, however, the show’s success lies with its cast. China has sent over its best: Li Guang as Nakamaro and shinkyogeki superstar Wu Rujun as Yang-kui-fei. The concubine is renowned in Japan as one of history’s “Three Great Beauties,” and the radiant Wu captures her charm as well as her sorrow.

At the close of the play, Yang stands silhouetted against a blue sky as cherry blossoms rain down. The music is laced with German Romantic melodies, and her dying notes are plangent in the Chinese style. The Japanese audience went wild with enthusiasm — and this English reviewer, too.

Theater doesn’t get much more cross-cultural than this. Or more triumphant.