It’s hard to choose the most powerful visual moment in the New National Theater’s production of “19-Year-Old Jacob.” My vote would be for the opening scene when, after the audience has been in total darkness for more than a minute, a single sharp triangle of white light suddenly shines down to reveal the main character lying on a bed as water drips precisely onto him from an impossibly high point above. We can vaguely make out other bodies draped over tall pillars, long hair and limbs hanging limp. A bright-red phone rings. The actor picks it up. “Hello? Hello?”
This kind of transformation — plunging the audience into darkness, then presenting them with something completely unexpected — happens again and again throughout “19-Year-Old Jacob.” Long before the end I gave up trying to predict what I would see next, and just enjoyed the constant sense of surprise, and even occasional awe.
Directed by the visionary Yukichi Matsumoto of Osaka’s Ishinha Theater, this is a roller coaster for the eyes. Whatever you may think of the story — which isn’t short on stylized depictions of graphic sex and violence — it’s impossible to ignore its theatrical wizardry.
Adapted for the stage by award-winning playwright Shu Matsui, “19-Year-Old Jacob” is based on a 1986 novel by revered writer Kenji Nakagami (1946-92), who was born of burakumin ancestry in the Kumano district of Wakayama Prefecture. In Japan, burakumin are historically an outcast class due to their association with “unclean” occupations such as execution, undertaking, butchering or tanning. Discriminated against for centuries, they continue to have difficulty getting jobs or marrying anyone who is not a burakumin.
Nonetheless, Nakagami — the first person from his segregated buraku village to be educated — became a celebrated author, critic and poet who, in 1975, was awarded the Akutagawa Prize, one of Japan’s highest literary honors.
Sex, violence, and the suffering of Japan’s outcasts are central to almost all Nakagami’s work — to the point that they take on the kind of near-mythic quality that certainly shrouds this production of “19-Year-Old Jacob.”
Given the work’s basic storyline — disaffected youth does drugs, has lots of sex, cannot escape his past — the play could easily have fallen into melodrama. However, the expertly crafted visual aesthetic at once elevates it beyond the soap opera it might have become, thanks especially to the exquisitely simple set consisting of large, slanted benches. As they fit together like puzzle pieces to become a jazz bar, a pier, apartment rooms, a car — and even a winding road that seems to lead back into the main character’s past — there’s something about these odd shapes that’s never quite “real,” further strengthening the eerie, otherworldly quality of Nakagami’s story and setting.
In addition, the production’s quality owes a lot to the actors’ stylized but refined performances, with Takuya Ishida superb as the hard, stone-faced Jacob — while Miki Yokota and Kouhei Matsushita provide good foils for him with their occasionally manic energy. Meanwhile, as Rope, a woman in an abusive relationship with a heroin addict, Kae Okumura is particularly affecting — her waifish face and haunted eyes seeming to fill the space whenever she appears.
Really, though, the staging is the star. From fishing piers to the open road to orgiastic bedrooms depicted via billowing white sheets and flashlight-illuminated silhouettes, I honestly felt this production could transport the audience anywhere, to the point that director Matsumoto’s staging at times seemed to overpower Nakagami’s work.
However, the writer is very much present. Text from his novel appears constantly on the back wall, and in one haunting scene, sentences fall slowly from high above with the individual kanji growing steadily larger as they loom over the actors. Though the world lost Nakagami too soon when he died of kidney cancer at the age of 46, for the unfortunately brief run of “19-Year-Old Jacob” his world comes thrillingly alive on the stage.
“19-Year-Old Jacob” runs at the New National Theater, Tokyo, till June 29. For details, visit www.nntt.jac.go.jp.