‘Scary stories’ series reaches limit

by Natsume Date

Special To The Japan Times

In “Hyakumonogatari,” a 1911 novella by the great author and translator Ogai Mori, the protagonist explains that its title refers to a traditional way of telling ghost stories, saying: “In hyakumonogatari (meaning ’100 tales’), people gather together and arrange 100 candles. Each person tells a ghost story, and then extinguishes a candle, and this continues one by one. According to legend, after the 100th candle is put out, a real ghost will appear.”

To prevent a ghost appearing, those present must stop once they’ve heard the 99th scary story.

It is this pattern on which the stage-performance series “Kayoko Shiraishi’s Hyakumonogatari Series” has been based. In the 22 years since the project began, the actress Kayoko Shiraishi has performed beautifully written “scary stories,” from ancient classics to contemporary works by Haruki Murakami, in recitations — if that’s the right word for these stagings to which she brings the full range of her extraordinary theatrical expertise.

An icon of Japan’s drama world, Shiraishi, 72, famously played the leading roles in grand-scale Greek tragedies with such intensity that she was nicknamed “the lunatic actress.” And indeed, she brings to her “Hyakumonogatari” a unique aura that’s enough to make anyone feel scared — though the project has also revealed a new sidesplitting comedienne dimension to her talents.

“You’ll rarely find such an amazing comedic actress,” the show’s director, Shinichi Kamoshita, declared recently when this writer dropped in on a rehearsal. Now aged 79, Kamoshita is a top director of TV dramas who is also renowned for being a voracious reader and for his profound knowledge of performance arts from traditional forms like noh and kabuki to Western show business.

“Of the writers she excels in, many of their works comprise elements of humor,” Kamoshita noted, adding, “I think there is a fine line between fear and humor, though I personally prefer comedy. But if you present something tedious, the audience falls asleep, right? So in this project I chose to feature scary stories that have been well written in Japanese.”

On stage, once Shiraishi starts speaking in her slightly low, but lovely strong voice that carries so well, the scene she’s describing appears in the mind’s-eye as clearly as if you could touch it. However, with remarkable modesty, when we met at rehearsals she credited her director for that, saying, “This is because Kamoshita is very particular about the pitch and nuance of my voice. Not only my voice, but my body movements as well; he’ll say ‘just take a half step forward with your left leg, then look back.’

“However, he never says a word about emotions, and I have never tried to pour emotion into my recitations. Nonetheless, while I’m reading along in a detached way, when my emotions come out, they come out, and then in other places they pull back. Somehow the result is something weightless, and every time I am guided to a strange world.”

To this remarkable insight, Kamoshita added, “The amazing thing is how she understands that if you try to put emotion into a reading, it won’t work. As an actor, she’s a cut above the rest.

“After all,” he continued, “theater is a mysterious thing with thousands of years of history. People only started talking about interpreting roles and the like in the past couple of hundred years, so it’s not in its nature to be something you can do by thinking about it with your head. It will be best if everyone realizes this while enjoying ‘Hyakumonogatari.’ “

The upcoming seasons feature the 98th and 99th stories of the series — respectively “Hashi Zukushi” (“The Seven Bridges”), a light comedy by Yukio Mishima (1925-70), and “Tenshu Monogatari” (“The Castle Tower”), a classic work of fantasy by Kyoka Izumi (1873-1939). With a lineup as strong as this — and Shiraishi sublimely working her magic — the last candle of the series is sure to be extinguished in fine style.

“Kayoko Shiraishi’s Hyakumonogatari Series # 32″ tours nationwide from June 20-Oct. 1. For details, call J-Clip on 03-3352-1616 or visit www.j-clip.co.jp. This story was written in Japanese and translated by Claire Tanaka.