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The plays of Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653-1724), who is often called Japan’s Shakespeare, are a staple of the kabuki world and countless productions of his work have been staged over the centuries. However, actor Rintaro Haryu is determined to make his interpretation of Chikamatsu a unique one.

Working from Chikamatsu’s “Onna Gorishi Abura-no Jigoku (The Woman-Killer and the Hell of Oil),” Haryu has transformed this four-hour kabuki play into a 1 1/2-hour, one-man, bilingual drama. In his performance, Haryu will not only play the roles of 15 characters, but also deliver his lines in English and Kamigata-kotoba, an Osaka dialect spoken during the Edo Period. In April last year, he presented a version in which only Kamigata-kotoba was used.

The 43-year-old actor says he is performing in English to broaden the appreciation of Japan’s theater master.

“Chikamatsu’s dramas are great literature that incorporates quotations from Chinese and Japanese classics, noh, Buddhist chants and so on,” says Haryu. “His language is as rich as Shakespeare’s.”

For his English performance, Haryu will use the English translation by renowned Japanese-literature expert Donald Keene.

“Because the translation uses present-day English, it is easy for me to speak and for the audience to understand,” says Haryu. “It often helped me understand Chikamatsu’s original text.”

For a future performance, the thespian plans to add Chinese.

Enhancing the uniqueness of Haryu’s project will be the accompaniment: Instead of traditional shamisen music, he has composed an avant-garde piano piece influenced by traditional Japanese music to complement his acting. Belgium-based pianist Goro Yamane will play Haryu’s composition during the performance.

Haryu studied Western music theory while majoring in economics at Tohoku University. But at age 24, he became bewitched by the music of noh, which uses a musical language completely different from the Western repertoire.

“Until then, I only accepted tonal music and music that can be expressed in a five-line staff score,” he says. “But noh music shocked me, entranced me and stimulated me.”

By the age of 28, though, Haryu says he realized that he wanted to express himself in a more direct way. “So I decided to become an actor,” he says. “I thought I was too old to become a professional instrumental musician, but not too old to become a professional actor.”

He first joined a one-year course for would-be actors. After acting in a company that specializes in presenting kabuki in a contemporary way, he went independent.

To learn Kamigata-kotoba for the performance, Haryu devised pitch notations and wrote them into his manuscript.

“I am confident that kabuki actors will find my Kamigata-kotoba well-mastered,” Haryu says.

“In the Kamigata-kotoba of the Edo Period, pitch changes from syllable to syllable so greatly that today’s standard Japanese sounds just flat,” Haryu says. “I will also try to incorporate the pitch changes into the English narrative as much as possible.”

“Onna Goroshi Abura-no Jigoku” focuses on a troubled youth, 23-year-old Yohei. The stepson of Tokubei, an oil merchant, he is spoiled by his parents and literally gets away with murder.

In debt to a loan shark, Yohei goes to the house of Hichizaemon, a neighbor who is also an oil merchant, and asks his 27-year-old wife Okichi for money. When the woman refuses to give him money, Yohei suggests that she lend him some oil, which he can sell for money. She agrees, but as he watches her measuring out the oil, Yohei becomes aroused. A struggle then ensues, which ends with the youth stabbing Okichi to death.

“Chikamatsu describes a youth’s problem behavior with keen insight,” Haryu says. “The play’s theme is domestic violence and crimes of passion. Through the play, we realize that we have been suffering from these problems for centuries.

Haryu says the play is ultimately about the dangers of loving a child too much. He hopes that teenagers and young people, as well as parents, will come see the play to “reconsider familial relationships.”

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.

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