Kushida’s ‘Flapper’ comes roaring back

by Natsume Date

Special To The Japan Times

“Young people these days won’t be too familiar with the term the Roaring Twenties, but the 1920s still hold interest as a period. It was a time of changing values, not only in the United States, but in Europe: Dadaism, Cubism, Expressionism and other non-mainstream arts were blossoming. All over the world, people were looking to find new things.”

That was how the writer and director Kazuyoshi Kushida explained why he set his play “Motto Naite-yo Furappa” (“Cry Some More For Me, Flapper”) — in which he’s now also performing — in “an imaginary ’20s-era Chicago.” In this case, however, “imaginary” may be the more illuminating adjective, since in his research Kushida, 71, says “he found himself strongly drawn” to a crime-history book by a Japanese detective who had already retired in the 1920s and who wrote in an old literary style about a Chicago he never visited and gangs whose exploits he largely conjured up himself.

“What kind of city is Chicago? If you want to know nowadays, you can look it up on the Internet. But back then, information had to be shipped across the sea in a boat,” the playwright points out, adding: “With that lack of knowledge due to the distance, misunderstandings came easily. It was so funny to read this former detective’s imagination-fueled stories. People hate it when their country is misunderstood by outsiders, but I rather thought I’d play with that idea in my work.”

The result on stage includes gangsters fighting, a raunchy show at a bustling club, a family of rats living underground, love between a dancer from the countryside and a boxer who throws his fights and gets beaten for money. They are all echoes of things maybe seen or read somewhere, episodes from a distant foreign country, and as an emcee (Kushida) introduces the characters and settings, they and more all appear on the stage before disappearing like illusions.

Meanwhile, cast members not acting can be clearly seen doubling as band members performing the work’s 30 numbers as the whole thing combines to generate a real vaudeville feel and a sense of spectacle.

“Since the modern era, theater has placed the most importance on drama, but before that, it was more free, and there was a sense of abundance and not worrying about story arcs,” Kushida explained. “That form remains today in cabarets, circuses and vaudeville theater, but it is somehow seen as having a low artistic value. This work was my way of telling the world, ‘That’s not necessarily true.’ “

When Kushida first awoke to theater in the 1960s, the likes of Peter Brook and Théâtre du Soleil founder Ariane Mnouchkine were at the forefront. It was a time when artists were rejecting realist theater, and works that drew on collective creation to break down existing styles were flourishing.

Kushida says that in 1966 he, too, was inspired to found the Jiyu Gekijo (later renamed On-Theater Jiyu Gekijo), thinking, “Theater isn’t for drama; theater is for theater!” He was greatly influenced, he admits, by a Bertolt Brecht play he saw performed by the Berliner Ensemble in East Berlin in 1969. Through that piece, which featured an emcee and actors who also played instruments live on stage, Kushida found his attachment to the musical-theater style doubled in strength.

In recent years, he collaborated successfully with the late Nakamura Kanzaburo on a new interpretation and production of kabuki. An early-modern entertainment of Japan’s masses, kabuki was the kind of “theater” that perfectly fitted Kushida’s preferences.

“Cry Some More For Me, Flapper” premiered in 1977 and was often staged after that before, under the influence of Japan’s bubble economy of the 1980s, it became a Broadway-style musical extravaganza.

However, the runs in Tokyo and elsewhere will be the first chance in 22 years for audiences in Japan to relish this musical tour de force. And unsurprisingly, the central cast and staff are all new in this production that deliberately recalls the origins of the work as it also strives to give birth to a completely new version of “Flapper.”

As a taste of what to expect, Kushida recounts how, “I wanted a song for the part of a newspaper reporter who stands up for justice, and I told Yoshiyuki Sahashi, the arrangement and music director, ‘I want something that starts out like a Kurt Weill song, and then suddenly turns into a sort of Al Jolson ‘Swanee’ type of thing.’ He said, ‘I’ve got it!’ — and he made a new song for me.”

Kushida’s days are filled with such revisions to his original intentions — just as they are inspired by working with talented members of the younger generation. The outcome — this latest edition of a musical masterpiece — is a work simply not to be missed.

“Cry Some More For Me, Flapper” runs till March 2 at Tokyo Bunkamura’s Theatre Cocoon (www.bunkamura.co.jp). It then tours March 7-9 to Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture, and March 14-16 to Theater Brava! in Osaka. This article was written in Japanese for The Japan Times and translated by Claire Tanaka.