If there’s one thing I never expected to see in a bunraku play, it was a disco ball. Similarly, a scene in which the leading lady has her nails done by a bevy of kimono-clad attendants.
But if you’re the celebrated writer-actor-director Koki Mitani, you can get away with a lot — even in a work of traditional Japanese puppetry.
Mitani, 53, is renowned in Japan and abroad for his films and TV shows, as well as for his original works and adaptations of famous plays in just about every entertainment medium.
His current take on bunraku, “Sorenari Shinju” (“Much Ado About Love Suicides”), is a fresh, charming and hilariously funny reinvention of one of Japan’s oldest and most respected performance-art forms which, following successful Tokyo runs in 2012 and 2013, will be staged (with English subtitles) in Kyoto from Aug. 7-17.
Before you go along, it does no harm to find out a bit about bunraku and its most famous playwright, Monzaemon Chikamatsu (1653-1725), the creator of “Sonezaki Shinju” (“The Love Suicides at Sonezaki”) — the work from which Mitani’s is derived. If you don’t, though, worry not — there is just enough casual exposition to keep you up to speed.
We know we’re in for something different when the play starts with a puppet of the bespectacled director himself politely telling the audience to turn off their cell phones, and advising that “unauthorized photography and unauthorized lovers’ tiffs” will not be tolerated.
After that the curtain opens on what appears to be a fairly standard version of the shinjū (love-suicide) stories for which bunraku is well known. Two lovers enter the forest of Tenjin in Osaka, where the characters in the original took their lives. Lamenting their fate, they are about to kill themselves … until a cake-seller named Hanbei happens along and scolds them, saying that with so many people copying “that damn play by Chikamatsu,” no one wants to buy his cakes anymore.
Then he leads the couple back to his home at the edge of the forest, where his wife gives them practical advice on why they shouldn’t kill themselves — including, “kakkoi ja nai!” (“suicide isn’t cool!”). So, cakes in hand, the lovers leave — promising to heed her words.
Hanbei, meanwhile, sees a business opportunity: His wife can counsel all the suicidal couples who come to the forest, and they’ll charge a fee that includes a free cake. Their slogan? “Dying is not a piece of cake!” (The original Japanese is a pun on manjū [cake] and shinjū [love-suicide].)
I’ll reveal no more about the plot (or that disco ball), except to say that it’s all classic Mitani, with plenty of twists, witty dialogue — and savvy commentary on the nature of art and its relationship to life. Mitani clearly knows his bunraku, and delights in poking fun at its idiosyncrasies — that a lovers’ suicide is only worthy of a play if the couple are attractive, for example.
At one point he also has Hanbei arguing with Chikamatsu about whether his plays encourage suicide, and whether he’s capitalizing on tragedy — a scene that’s all the more humorous because Hanbei, of course, is capitalizing on Chikamatsu’s work and the “suicide fad” to sell cakes. There’s even a delightful play-within-a-play scene in which Hanbei and his wife watch one of Chikamatsu’s other famous works, “Shinjuten no Amijima” (“The Love Suicides at Amijima”).
Meanwhile, thanks to those subtitles’ excellent line-by-line translation, non-speakers of Japanese will be able to enjoy to the full this show that relies so much on wordplay and banter — far more than via the usual earphone-guide summaries. And, being hip and fun — while also true to the traditional spirit of the medium — Mitani’s “Much Ado About Love Suicides” seems like just the thing to get anyone interested in an art form that some may find intimidating or disconnected from the modern world.
“Much Ado About Love Suicides” runs at the Kyoto Theater Aug. 7-17. For details, visit www.kyoto-gekijo.com.