Stage

Giving Sherlock Holmes a new lease of life in Japan

by Nobuko Tanaka

Contributing Writer

Now unmistakable with his cape, deerstalker hat and pipe, Sherlock Holmes debuted in 1887’s “A Study in Scarlet,” the first of 60 books and short stories by the British writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in which he appeared.

In Japan, few contemporary artists are better-known than the 58-year-old playwright, screenwriter and director Koki Mitani, who recently declared that he’s been a fan of the self-styled “consulting detective” since he was in elementary school.

In fact, the popularity of the quirky master of deduction and reasoning, and his friend and assistant Dr. (John H.) Watson — the books’ narrator — continues unabated.

In the U.K., “Sherlock,” a contemporary drama starring Benedict Cumberbatch (as Holmes) and Martin Freeman (Watson), has been a hit series for the BBC since 2010, while 2009’s Hollywood blockbuster “Sherlock Holmes” by Guy Ritchie also added to the Guinness World Records tally for the most portrayed character in film history.

In the process of creating NHK TV’s 2014 puppet-drama series “Sherlock Holmes,” Mitani said he read all 60 stories again — experience he is putting to further use with his latest work, “Ai to Kanashimi no Sherlock Holmes” (roughly translated as “The Love and Sadness of Sherlock Holmes”), which he’s directing through Sept. 29 at Setagaya Public Theatre in Tokyo ahead of performances in Osaka and Fukuoka.

Presented as a fictional biography of Holmes in his youth, the play stars Hayato Kakizawa in the lead role, with Jiro Sato as Watson and Alice Hirose as Violet, a mysterious and beautiful new client, created by Mitani, at the now world-famous 221B Baker Street apartment-office the men share in central London.

Explaining why he cast 31-year-old Kakizawa — a star of musicals rather than straight theater — to play Holmes, Mitani says he set his sights firmly on him after watching “Mary Poppins” in 2018, in which Kakizawa played lovable chimneysweep and troubadour, Bert. Mitani saw in him his ideal Sherlock, a man who is “peculiar, spontaneous and something of a genius — but also self-centered, arrogant, naive and dark.”

Though Kakizawa’s grandfather was a performer from a well-known family of kabuki muicians, his son — Kakizawa’s father — did not carry on the family trade and went into an alternative career.

“As a child I sometimes went to see my grandfather performing, but I was more interested in playing soccer than learning traditional shamisen music,” Kakizawa says.

Though his young head was full of dreams of soccer, Kakizawa said that one day fate intervened in the shape of a school trip to a theater.

“I didn’t want to go because I wanted to practice soccer, but when I saw the prestigious Japanese musical company Shiki perform the mega-hit musical ‘The Lion King’ I instantly fell in love with the show and told my teacher I would be a musical actor,” he says. “Of course he laughed and didn’t take it seriously at all.”

Straight after, though, he set out to realize that dream, spending most of his time practicing singing and studying musical theater until — “quite fantastically,” as he puts it — he was chosen from among hundreds in highly competitive auditions to become a trainee at the Shiki Theatre Company.

“It was hell at first,” he says. “There were lots of semi-professional dancers, singers and actors, while I was a complete novice and had never performed on stage. Yet it was no problem for me to practice hard from dawn to dusk because I’d done tough training every day for soccer.”

While about half the new class failed and left after a year, Kakizawa was picked out by Shiki’s founder and artistic director, the late Keita Asari, to work with the Broadway staff of the rock musical “Spring Awakening” that Shiki staged with its own cast members in 2009.

Kakizawa says that, looking back now, oddly enough it was that experience playing the main role of the charismatic teenager Melchior that encouraged him to leave his beloved Shiki after three years.

“Actors at Shiki were not required to show emotion in their roles, as singing and dancing techniques were valued most,” he says. “But those American staff members constantly asked me to show my feelings, even as angry young Melchior used words like ‘f—-‘ and ‘b——.’

“It was a mind-blowing experience for me, so I wanted to know more about theater and acting and decided to move that way.”

However, Kakizawa says it was a particularly strict superior that instilled in him the right approach to his work.

“I was scolded by Yukio Ninagawa when I was in his play ‘Kafka on the Shore,'” he says. “He hardly commented on my acting or voice, but all the time he’d say, ‘You should study more about general things and the world, and above all you should involve yourself more and more deeply with other people in order to be an actor.’

“Those words of his really hit home as I’d always been concerned just about technique,” says Kakizawa.

So, what aspects of Holmes has Mitani focused on in this play — and what kind of person does he present?

“The director said to me that the detective was an immature person with a mental age of about 8,” Kakizawa says. “He also said he was satisfied with my portrayal and he could see the person he’d imagined in me — though I don’t know quite what to make of that.”

Kakizawa then offers a small clue about the new play.

“I’d point people to two key words on the publicity image: ‘The spare.’ Each of the main characters has someone who is a thorn in their side,” he says. “For Holmes, it’s Mycroft, his older brother who is an elite government official, and as the story is set before he’s a great detective, he’s got a complex about him.

“Watson and Violet also have problems, but when they tackle her case they unravel a lot of personal issues and gain confidence as each finally finds their own value. So this is a human drama with a detective plot, suspense, mysteries and lots of jokes.”

Finally, Kakizawa says that he has told Mitani he wants to act as an older Holmes, even in his declining years, in another new play of his someday.

It will certainly be interesting to see how this talented actor progresses, and how Mitani, one of today’s greatest masters of contemporary Japanese drama, might craft that role for him. But, regardless, it’s safe to expect great plays from them both going forward.

“Ai to Kanashimi no Sherlock Holmes” runs through Sept. 29 at Setagaya Public Theatre in Sangenjyaya, Tokyo; Oct. 3-6 at Morinomiya Piloti Hall in Osaka; and Oct. 12 and 13 at Kurume City Plaza in Fukuoka Prefecture. For more details, visit horipro-stage.jp/stage/sherlockholmes2019.

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