Starting all over again

by Nobuko Tanaka

Gowasan means “call off,” “start again,” or “bankruptcy.” The term is originally derived from abacus calculation, where it refers to the shaking of the abacus to return all beads to their starting point after completing a calculation.

“Ningen Gowasan (Human Gowasan),” now playing at Theater Cocoon in Shibuya, is the first play set in samurai days to come from the pen of progressive dramatist Matsuo Suzuki, who founded Otona Keikaku (Adult Project Theater Company) in 1988.

Matsuo, now 40 and still active in many different fields, has long been a voice for his disengaged generation. This time he both wrote and directed, and also takes the role Nanboku Tsuruya (a famous Edo Period kabuki playwright), who here is a kind of objective observer on the sidelines.

The other onlooker is played by Kankuro Kudo, who joined Otona Keikaku in 1991 but is a household name by virtue of being one of the most popular TV-drama and film scriptwriters. These two appear at key points as advisers to the main character, Jitsunosuke Kase, played by Kankuro Nakamura, a leading kabuki actor who is enthusiastic in his many collaborations across theatrical genres.

Set in the Bakumatsu, the last days of the Tokugawa Shogunate, the drama centers on Jitsunosuke, who was born into an elite samurai family but is determined to be a playwright. Forced to leave his family to pursue his dream, we find him striving to open a theater in Edo, forging money to help him achieve his end — and killing people along the way to hide his crimes.

Then, by chance, hunter brothers Kurotaro (Mitsuru Fukikoshi) and Haiji (Sadao Abe) discover what Jitsunosuke is doing. They use their knowledge to get him to employ them and school them in the ways of the samurai. Gradually, Jitsunosuke’s life becomes bound up with the brothers, and others, and eventually he finds himself unable to retreat to his family home.

All this occurs in a blur of activity, as more than 40 characters (acted by about 30 players) take to the stage, from Jitsunosuke’s mother to his wife — who he left on the day they got married — to his samurai friends, his ancestors, and even a slave who has escaped from an American warship.

It is as if an exultant vision of Edo, teeming with life, appears before our eyes. There’s even a real canal running through the middle level of the three-tier stage, a waterway that becomes a moat when the scene moves to Yoshiwara, Edo’s renowned brothel area, and into which actors sometimes fall or from which they emerge, dripping wet.

The Bakumatsu period, the dying days of the shogunate that ruled Japan with an iron hand from 1603 to 1867, was one of widespread, radical confusion — truly a gowasan moment in Japanese history, when the political and social system, and even people’s most fundamental values, were in the throes of change.

Amid this vortex, Matsuo unfolds his irony-loaded tale of a man infatuated by an apparently impractical — and, perhaps, insignificant? — ambition called “theater.” Whether or not theater does really have any significance is a question Matsuo poses throughout this drama, and he resolves it with an ending as utterly unexpected as it is dramatically sublime.

There’s another gowasan dimension to this play, of course, for though set in the Bakumatsu period, the drama draws clear parallels with modern Japanese society — a contemporary commentary that is further enhanced by the colloquial modern Japanese in which it is written. Also greatly enhancing the play’s timeliness is Matsuo’s cynical humor, which has earned him legions of young followers and is much in evidence here.

Unfortunately, some of the nuances of this cool, clever irony are at times lost in the large space of the Theater Cocoon — the play’s subtle details became more evident when I sat down and read it afterward. Nonetheless, the actors delivered their lines so naturally that it felt as if Matsuo had scripted the drama after casting. This was nowhere more striking than with his regular actors, such as Sadao Abe and Yoshiyoshi Arakawa, and with Natsuko Akiyama and Hairi Katagiri, all of whom performed quite brilliantly.

So, what is the worth of pursuing a dream in the arts amid a wider, all-encompassing shakedown? More to the point here, what can theater do in the face of the current, wide-ranging crisis of Nippon Gowasan — in a world seemingly on the brink of war, too?

With his uniquely cool, satirical view and perverse sense of humor, Matsuo’s evaluation appears to point to two extreme, mutually exclusive conclusions — with no comfortable, evasive middle way at all. Interestingly, even after the stunning and unforeseeable ending, the person sitting to my left was wildly enthusiastic while the one on my right clapped grudgingly.