Apart from glitzy musicals and kabuki, most theatrical stagings in Japan finish their run after a couple of weeks or even a few days. With no long-run system as the norm, unlike Broadway or the West End, by the time a buzz has got around that something is good, it will almost always have closed or be sold out.
Lucky for us then that “Rokudenashi Takuboku” (“Rascal Takuboku”), which is creating quite a stir, will return to Tokyo next month after its first run here ends this weekend and it goes on the road to Osaka.
Written and directed by box-office- savvy Koki Mitani, 49, “Rokudenashi Takuboku” is, in the words of its creator, “his first erotic-crime suspense.” It deals with a fictional love triangle between a Japanese poet, Takuboku Ishikawa (1886-1912), and two characters conjured up by Mitani — Ishikawa’s best friend, Tetsu, and Ishikawa’s lover, Tomi. This is a rich seam for Mitani to mine, because the real Takuboku is renowned for his hugely popular, outspoken and colloquial poems about the destitution of his daily life before his early death from tuberculosis at age 26.
Takuboku is widely known in Japan for his life’s adversity and his innocent appearance, but Mitani explains in the program that the play is not a biographical work. It is a portrayal of the poet’s life that represents a universal human drama.
The two-act play begins in Morioka, Iwate Prefecture, in front of a monument commemorating the town’s most famous celebrity, Takuboku (Tatsuya Fujiwara). Here, Tetsu (Kantaro Nakamura) and Tomi (Kazue Fukiishi) are having their first reunion since Takuboku suddenly vanished one mysterious night 12 years ago.
The scene shifts back to that night, which was spent in a room in a ryokan (traditional inn) at a hot-spring resort, where the three characters are seen engaged in lively conversation. We gradually learn that Takuboku has a private, seemingly rather twisted plan to get his girlfriend and his friend to have sex. Whether this is so that he can demand financial compensation for being wronged, or simply for some kind of kinky, egotistic motive, is unclear. And Takuboku disappears before there’s any denouement of his real aim.
The two acts of this “suspense drama,” as Mitani terms it, are like two sides of a coin. In the first act we see that night’s events as Tomi remembers them, then we flip over and in the second act, we see how Tetsu recalls them. From the two takes on the same night, we begin, like detectives, to deduce what might have really happened.
It is not, however, until the epilogue — when we hear from Takuboku’s ghost — that we get to the core of the puzzle, wherein lie the chief protagonist’s true intentions, his miscalculations and the reason he left his two friends so suddenly.
Enacted in front of the late poet’s memorial, with the friends gathered there to celebrate its completion, Mitani’s simple, heartwarming ending to “Rokudenashi Takuboku” is both moving and melancholic. Takuboku realizes that even though he was a lazy womanizer and spendthrift, he still has the unconditional affection of his friends. As the real Takuboku once wrote in a secret diary: “I truly loved my wife . . . but a human’s desires are not simple.”
To portray this engagingly flawed character, Mitani deliberately cast baby-faced and clean-cut Fujiwara as Takuboku, then encouraged him to draw out two sides of the poet — the naive and puerile as well as the shrewd and crafty.
Although outwardly the play appears to examine a historical figure, Takuboku’s torments as an artist in the Meiji Era (1868-1912) resonate with people today. Japan has seen more than 30,000 suicides every year since at least 1998, many by people under the stress of poverty and/or difficult personal relationships, just as Takuboku experiences in the play. Takuboku’s misguided struggle to keep his inner self hidden from the world reflect similar feelings that people today may be experiencing in the face of modern social issues and tragic events.
As pertinent as the play’s theme may be, however, it is perhaps the young popular cast that truly brings the play to the contemporary audience. As Mitani hoped, these three talented young actors, all in their late 20s, bring the historical suspense of his story closer to the audience. Their performances are intimate and natural, enhanced by simple sets and an original shakuhachi score by Dozan Fujiwara.
Amid Japan’s ongoing economic stagnation, with many people counting their pennies, most entertainment producers avoid risk-taking wherever possible. However, “Rokudenashi Takuboku’s” long Tokyo run is a risk that will likely pay off, as the full house at Tokyo Metropolitan Art Space has proved. The major production company behind the play, Horipro, is setting a precedent for theater in Japan by encouraging performance art to move out of its fringe niches and into the mainstream of profit-making entertainment.
“Rokudenashi Takuboku” runs till Jan. 23 at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Space, a 3-min. walk from JR Ikebukuro Station. It then plays at Theater BRAVA in Osaka from Jan.27-Feb. 13, before returning to Tokyo from Feb. 17-26 at The Galaxy Theater, a 3-min. walk from Tennoz Isle Station on the Rinkai or Tokyo Monorail lines. For more details, call Horipro at (03) 3490-4949 or visit www.horipro.co.jp