Kabuki plays were an important source of material for early Japanese filmmakers, conferring prestige and popularity on their fledgling medium. In recent decades, directors have added kabuki-esque touches to their films (Seijun Suzuki being the best known), and kabuki actors have performed their famous roles for the camera (as Bando Tamasaburo did for Daniel Schmid’s 1995 docu-drama “The Written Face”), but contemporary films set in or around the kabuki world are rare indeed.
Yukiko Takayama, a veteran film and TV scriptwriter who made her directorial debut with the 1995 costume drama “Kaze ni Katami (After the Wind Has Gone),” penetrates that world more thoroughly than I would have thought possible in “Musume Dojoji — Jaen no Koi (Musume Dojoji — Love of the Snake Demon).” But it’s more for kabuki fans, particularly the women sitting in the pricier seats, than the rest of us. Though set in present-day Tokyo, the story is melodrama in the typical kabuki manner, filmed with the costumes, makeup and staging on close, well-lit display, the way it might look from the fifth row.
In kabuki, the plots, which are often taken from old tales of star-crossed romance or the Edo equivalent of police-blotter news, matter less than performance and presentation, which a film can only convey imperfectly. The camera may give us a closer view of the resplendent kimono, but it also reveals, without the softening effects of lighting and distance, that the maiden wearing them is a middle-aged man.
Kabuki fans often say that the onnagata — the men who play women’s roles in kabuki — are “more womanly than the real thing,” but the director who takes them at their word risks absurdity or worse. Takayama is wiser, focusing instead on the off-stage lives of one onnagata, played by kabuki star Fukusuke Nakamura, and the twin sisters who love him, both played by Riho Makise (“Turn,” “Kao,” “Tugumi”).
As Nakamura demonstrates with total authenticity, onnagata can be straight men with real emotions and dark pasts. As a teacher and a performer of the classic kabuki dance Musume Dojoji, he shows us the talent and skill that go into creating the onnagata mystique. It’s far more than the paint job and the frocks.
The film’s center, however, is Haruka (Makise), a modern dancer who wants to learn the truth about the suicide of her twin sister, Shiori. Costumed as the heroine of Musume Dojoji, whose mad, impossible love for a Buddhist priest transforms her into a snake demon, Shiori leaped to her death from a tall building.
Haunted by her sister’s image and voice — despite their years of separation — Haruka goes to Shiori’s dance teacher, the onnagata star Tomitaro Murakami (Nakamura) and asks to be taught Musume Dojoji. Reluctantly, Murakami agrees — he carries a burden of guilt that teaching Haruka might ease.
In becoming Murakami’s pupil, however, Haruka must not only put her flourishing dance career on hold, but endure the resentment and scorn of Murakami’s disciple Shuji (Takamasa Suga), who longs to play the lead in Musume Dojoji himself.
With the support of best friend and fellow dancer Kyoko (Miki Maya), Haruka plunges into her studies while obsessively pursuing her quest. Along the way she not only learns a new art, but also begins to probe her teacher about his feelings for her sister — and her. Then she meets Murakami’s former rival, Hanamaru (Toru Kazama), who now serves up cheap, gaudy popularizations of his art to the masses. He happens to be a dishy-looking guy, though, one who, unlike Murakami, has not obliterated his masculinity and sense of humanity.
The choice Haruka finds herself confronted with — between an unreachable master and an unreliable rogue — is hardly promising, but fits in quite well with Takayama’s classic theme: The impossibility of achieving true love in this fallen world. But what works just fine on the kabuki stage, where the dross of mortal passion is transformed into the ageless gold of high style, feels turgid and overwrought in modern dress. (Well, not entirely modern — poor Shiori wears a marcelled perm straight from the 1930s.)
Makise contributes to that overwroughtness in both her roles, but she also humanizes and lightens what could have been an otherwise heavy two hours. Nakamura is impeccable as Murakami, but the all-for-art perfectionism of the character limits his range; he can act like he’s in love, but never express it. As Hanamaru, Kazama is sexily dissolute, but comes off as closer to a gangster than an onnagata.
Maybe Kazama is there to reassure the otherwise squirmy straight guys in the audience — but Nakamura is the real reason to see the film. The control of every look and gesture is absolute, as the man disappears into the dancer and the dance. No caricature, no self-consciousness — instead a flow and passion that run generations and centuries deep. What does the West have to offer by comparison? “Hedwig and the Angry Inch?”