One night in deep midwinter, K. arrives at an inn in a snow-covered village beneath a mighty castle which may or may not exist. K., played by Tetsushi Tanaka, claims he has been hired by the castle as a land surveyor.

In the six strange days that follow, K. is constantly confused by quirky and contradictory phone calls and notes from the castle that keep him in limbo, while no one from the castle ever comes to meet him. All his efforts to reach it fail as he repeatedly loses his way in the snow and ends up back in the village. His life is rendered meaningless by this control from on high, a control that encompasses all life in the village. A further inscrutable irony is that K. never even sets eyes on the mist-shrouded castle itself.

Directed and created by Osamu Matsumoto, “The Castle” is based on the unfinished novel by Franz Kafka (1883-1924), written in 1922, two years before his death from tuberculosis.

Kafka told his friend and biographer Max Brod (1884-1968) to burn the manuscript along with the rest of his works.

During K.’s stay in the village, he makes the acquaintance of many of its key characters, including its leader and the schoolteacher and, in so doing, finds out about a pariah family there whose sin was that long ago a daughter disobeyed an order from the castle.

Despite the added insecurity of most nights having to find somewhere new to stay, K.’s life in the village is filled with amorous encounters, notably with a barmaid called Frieda (Mika Ishimura), whose lover, Mr. Klamm, is someone important in the castle.

The dance of futility is orchestrated by an original score by Neko Saito that draws heavily on the traditional, festive Jewish Kletzmer music of eastern Europe played on clarinet, violin, piano and guitar, while comical and saucy dance scenes choreographed by Shigehiro Ide bring an absurd jollity to the otherwise dark and foreboding 3 1/2-hour-long staging.

This version of “The Castle” at the New National Theatre is 49-year-old Matsumoto’s second foray into the dark world of Kafka following his award-winning production of “Amerika” at the Setagaya Public Theatre in 2001 (revived in 2003).

To get to grips with “Amerika,” the director spent a year in workshops with his cast. This time, after auditioning 500 people, Matsumoto began his workshops last May, eventually arriving at a version that ran for an unfeasible six hours before blitzing through an editing and revision process just recently before the opening.

Speaking exclusively to The Japan Times last week, Matsumoto said of this formidable challenge, “It was only because of the solid six-hour foundation that I could edit it with such assurance. In so doing, though, I was not aiming for a simple reproduction of the novel, but to produce a lively staging for the audience to enjoy, because I believe that just simply and realistically following a text is not the way forward for drama. I am more interested in creating a fictional effect based on the source.”

In the dimly-lit pit theater, the abstract sense of Kafka is conveyed well by a stage divided into three levels, each basically bare and black, with stairs connecting them and three black-robed figures who silently observe the action from behind pillars throughout. Though the overall effect is of gloom and a kind of controlled nightmare, it is beautifully and delicately lit. Masutomo Ota’s peasant-style costumes are superb in washed-out, Breughelesque browns, greens and deep reds, and with Jewish-style Homberg hats much in evidence.

On an electronic surtitle board, the director also treats the audience to a succession of Kafka’s aphorisms which serve as a wonderfully simple guide to the meaninglessness that takes on so much of the core significance here.

As for the man at the center of that riddle, Tanaka, who, in his role as K., is on stage almost all the time, said last week that “my first impression of the character was of an argumentative and peculiar person. But now, after being him for almost eight months, I feel he is really a quite cunning and calculating, but ordinary man — not just a victim or a loser in a maze — and probably someone with a darker purpose that is never revealed.”

Though some literary critics may take issue with such interpretations, it is precisely this freedom to explore such a great writer’s work that has drawn Matsumoto back to the lofty challenge of Kafka for a second time. As he said, “I wanted us to make our own creation out of ‘The Castle,’ because with Shakespeare or Chekhov, for example, it is impossible to do so, as the script already exists. But Kafka’s work is a treasury of theatrical material full of visual possibilities to transform it for the stage.”

Matsumoto intriguingly opts for an ending that is not so much a conclusion as a continuation of what has gone before — as if to say, fittingly for K., that life may be hard . . . but it’s a constant condition from which there is no escape. As Matsumoto put it, “Kafka’s novel is known as a deep, absurd and philosophical piece, but actually I believe it is more instinctive and a more personal internal story that must be familiar to contemporary audiences too, and one dealing with such fundamental and abiding issues as discrimination and group mentalities.”

After the performance, the audience seemed to feel more empty than entertained. It was as if people were in a blur of confusion, such as just after waking.

To this production’s great credit, that is the same feeling as one gets when reaching the end of Kafka’s novel.

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.