English director David Leveaux has been a jewel in the crown of Japanese theater since 1988, when he first came here as a pinch-hitter after a compatriot pulled out of directing a Tokyo production of “Dangerous Liaisons.” A 13-year stint as artistic director of the innovative Theatre Project Tokyo company followed from 1993, and as recently as 2014 he returned with an all-Japanese, noh-influenced staging of Harold Pinter’s “Old Times” that played to great acclaim in the capital and Osaka.
Now aged 58, Leveaux is back — this time to direct “Eternal Chikamatsu,” a daring new play by Kenichi Tani that he’s staging with an all-Japanese cast.
Based on “Shinju Ten no Amijima” (“The Love Suicide at Amijima”) by the great bunraku and kabuki playwright Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653-1725), this collaborative work — since it incorporates a lot of ideas from Leveaux — features not one heroine like the original, but two from separate eras.
One of these is Haru (played by award-winning actress Eri Fukatsu), who is working as a prostitute after her husband’s Lehman shock-related suicide, leaving her to pay off his company’s debts. She falls in love with a married customer, Jiro (Ayumu Nakajima), but her happiness evaporates when Jiro’s brother gives her money to pay off her debts on the condition she disappears from his family’s life.
Later, in some kind of time slip while she’s crossing a bridge, heartbroken Haru meets Koharu (Shichinosuke Nakamura), an indentured prostitute from the red-light district of 18th-century Osaka.
Just like Haru, Koharu has fallen in love with a customer, whose name is Jihee (also played by Nakajima). However, the pair plan to commit suicide together because society will never approve of the relationship.
All this is far from the kind of traditional kabuki play that Nakamura’s father — famed actor Kanzaburo Nakamura XVIII, who died in 2012 — had often urged Leveaux to direct.
To discover how “Eternal Chikamatsu” came about, The Japan Times sat with Leveaux and the 32-year-old Shichinosuke, a kabuki onnagata (female-role actor) who has rarely had anything to do with contemporary theater.
“I was simply amazed by Tani’s new story,” Nakamura says straight off. “The connection between Chikamatsu’s world and the world today was such an unexpected approach to me — but then I realized that the human approach to love has not changed much. Certainly, I will regard Chikamatsu’s stories in new and different ways after this.”
For his part, Leveaux says he felt honored to work with his great friend Kanzaburo’s son.
“Shichinosuke has this very marvelous gift, which is to make a gesture as simple as pulling love notes from his pocket so emotionally full,” he says. “This is something a modern actor finds very difficult to do. So in many ways, this production is my love letter to kabuki theater.
“I first saw kabuki the first time I came to Japan, I had no idea what was going on, but I had a very strong impression that I was watching some kinds of ghosts from the past speaking to me — something from the very heart of Japanese culture.
“I knew it was very important for me to try and understand this if I wanted to understand something about this theater, and also the culture it was in, because I’ve never been interested in just bringing Western theater here.”
Leveaux points out that though he read some of Chikamatsu’s plays and was impressed with the complex stories and characters, he realized there was a danger that his work — like a lot of traditional theater — was at risk of being presented like a museum piece.
“So I suppose my central notion is to get the present tense to make a connection with the past, and that really has to do with the instinct I have about the importance of our history,” Leveaux says. “When you are living in modern times and materialistic conditions break down, often you find yourself with no anchor. So if you try to live in the present without a connection with the past. It’s like having a melody but no harmony.”
For Nakamura, however — who normally plays self-effacing, well-behaved kabuki heroines — sharing the stage with ultra-modern Haru also revealed surprising connections.
“There are many differences between women’s lives then and now, so Haru often can’t understand Koharu’s attitudes,” he says. “Yet in the end I think we can see the strong similarities between two women’s views of love. Fundamentally they have the same pureness and beauty in their hearts and they both put the same value on love. So they understand each other very well in the end.”
Leveaux suggests that another core theme in the play, besides tackling what it means to be a woman, is an argument against suicide.
“Shinjū (love suicide) is not seen as romantic by Westerners and I don’t think it is very romantic for Japanese people either, to be honest, but it’s sometimes treated like that,” he says. “So the argument in the play is a serious debate about how to find a way to live — not how to find a way to die.
“Though I don’t think the theater is here to preach, I think it’s important to address the fact that suicide is a problem in Japan. So when you look at kabuki and you look at modern theater, they’re about how we tell stories that connect us in time to the dead and the living.
“That’s is the miracle of this play: It can heal and make us more human.”
“Eternal Chikamatsu” runs from Feb. 29 to March 6 at Umeda Arts Theater in Kita-ku, Osaka, and from March 10 to 27 at Bunkamura’s Theatre Cocoon in Shibuya-ku, Tokyo. For details, visit www.umegei.com or www.bunkamura.co.jp.