Though nowhere near as all-encompassing as the Renaissance in Europe, the closed, feudal world of shogunal Japan did throw up a few periods of vigorous artistic expression in the more than two and a half control-freak centuries it lasted. One of these was about 200 years ago, from 1804-1830, during what is known as the Bunka-Bunsei Period (usually shortened to the Kasei Period) — a flowering of popular, “people’s” culture among the urban masses of Edo which, with around 1.5 million inhabitants, was then the biggest city in the world. These heady few decades are the focus of “Kirara Ukiyoden (Graffiti of a Sparkling, Floating World),” now being staged in Shinjuku by the Tobira Za Theater Company.

Unlike the Kansai-centered Genroku Period (1688-1704), famed for its novels, lyrical writing and the refinement of kabuki, Kasei culture struck a populist chord through the ukiyo-e prints of woodblock artists such as Utamaro, Sharaku and Hokusai, and the racy, humorous novels of Harumachi Koikawa, Kyoden Santo and Bakin Takizawa — all of whom figure prominently in this play by Kensuke Yokouchi.

“Kirara Ukiyoden” opens in front of the massive gate of Yoshiwara, Edo’s most famous licensed pleasure-quarter. A young girl has just been sold to a brothel, and as she struggles vainly to escape, a young bookseller who is passing gives her one of his volumes as intellectual stimulation to ease her plight.

The bookseller is Juzaburo Tsutaya (Ginnojo Yamazaki), a wannabe artist who went on to make a fortune publishing a guidebook to Yoshiwara, and then became an important publisher and producer/patron of many talented and radical artists. The girl, Oshino (Tae Kimura), went on to become Yoshiwara’s most popular prostitute, and though she and Juzaburo yearn for each other, she instead allows herself to be bought by a wealthy patron and walks out of Juzaburo’s life. She did this, it seems, because she couldn’t imagine life with Juzaburo, who is constantly busy promoting the work of such as Utamaro Kitagawa (Ruo Sato) — having abandoned his own dreams of being an artist when he realized he didn’t have the talent.

“Kirara Ukiyoden” was originally written in 1988 for the Saison Theater in Ginza, one of many new venues opened around that time in response to a theater boom among young people combined with the expansive mood of the bubble economy. Its author, Yokouchi, was at that time a 25-year-old up-and-coming dramatist and the founder of Zenninn Kaigi (Baby-face Theater Company). The commission from the commercial Saison Theater was a major breakthrough — especially when the director cast the kabuki superstar Kankuro Nakamura in the leading role of Juzaburo.

This time around, Yokouchi himself revised the play and also directs it. As he candidly acknowledged in an interview in the program, he found himself working with some lines that are so full of ambition and idealism that they could only have been written by a 25-year-old. Nonetheless, this is no bubble-era apprentice work, but a play that tackles issues and concerns whose relevance is undiminished in what remains fundamentally a control-freak, bureaucratic society — albeit not (quite) anymore one in which wrongdoers’ parents are paraded through the streets before being beheaded.

In particular, here, it is interesting to see how Yokouchi portrays the fruitful relationships between patrons and artists in the Edo Period — such as those that flourished during the bubble but are now all too few. He touches on other perennially relevant themes, too: how ideas of women’s empowerment develop through education (here symbolized by the book Juzaburo gave Oshino), and how the government of the day strove to control the minds of its citizens — an effect now obligingly achieved by Japan’s mostly mealy-mouthed mass media.

But this staging isn’t just food for thought — it’s also a feast for the eyes. Yokouchi drives this tale of young artists striving to fulfill their potential in the face of official resistance at a high tempo, and uses to great effect a transparent silk screen that rises and falls and on which are projected the ukiyo-e artists’ works, chosen not just for their beauty but also to illustrate social conditions of the time.

Although some of the young actors in lesser roles here tended to overuse their voices to the point of harshness, this is really a quibble, because those playing the main characters of Juzaburo, Oshino and Harumachi (Seiji Rokkaku, probably Yokouchi’s longest-term collaborator) pull it all together magnificently, so that the play as a whole achieves a fine and satisfying balance. Especially, too, at this deeply disillusioning time, it is good to be reminded of the vigor and determination of this earlier generation of Japanese in the face of adversity — and to draw strength from their success.

“Kirara Ukiyoden” runs till Aug. 12 at the Kinokuniya Southern Theater, a 3-minute walk from JR Shinjuku Station. It then plays Aug. 15-17 at the Kintetsu Theater, Osaka. Tickets are 3,500 yen to 5,300 yen. For more details, call Tobira Za at (03) 3221-0530 or visit www.tobiraza.co.jp

* * *

The Ku Na’uka company gave only seven nights’ performances of Oscar Wilde’s “Salome” on a grassy open space in Hibiya Park in central Tokyo, where the audience was guided to their horseshoe of bleacherlike seats by garden lanterns on stands or hung from trees.

Once there, they were treated to a truly theatrical midsummer’s night dream conjured up under a towering, 30-meter oak. The instant the play started, the muddy, grassy area was transformed into a fantastical palace, home to that consummate femme fatale, Salome (Mikari).

But as transporting as this was, mere flights of fancy are not what Satoshi Miyagi, the founder and director of Ku Na’uka, aims to provide. Indeed, Miyagi is one of the few dramatists today still questioning the meaning of theater. As he said in an article titled “What is ‘the Theater’?” written to mark his company’s 10th anniversary in 2000: “If we find that theater today is losing its power . . . unfortunately, this is because many people are satisfied with just thoughtlessly telling stories, or they go to the trouble of making a play when an essay would do just as well.”

So inevitably, with Miyagi’s creative angst behind it, it was no real surprise that this “Salome” was not just a theater-style production presented in an open-air setting, but a staging that Miyagi had directed specially for that particular spot in Hibiya Park.

The result was, well, wild: Wilde’s derivation from the cautionary tale of unrequited passion was enacted in a world of insects. King Herod was a 10-meter-long centipede, with a cavorting, somewhat mincing actor at the head and two others manning the body; his queen, Herodias, was a giant spider (albeit with only six legs); and Salome herself, a beautiful mayfly. In the middle of the performance area, a huge wire web hung from the tree. On this was the captive John the Baptist — toward whom, at one point, Salome flew, hovering gorgeous and gleaming bathed in brilliant white and magenta light.

In weaving his metaphysical fantasy, Miyagi departed somewhat from his trademark separation of roles into logos (speaking) and pathos (moving) parts played by different actors. Instead, he sometimes had the same person both speaking and acting. For all that, one of the most astonishing elements of this production was the remarkable vocal performance of Soichiro Yoshiue — the logos for Herod — whose range and power were simply stunning.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.