A Tale of a City and its Four Guardian Gods

20121028-233815.jpgLast Friday I went to see A Tale of a City and its Four Guardian Gods, a Soseiza production that closed the Kyoto Experiment, performing arts festival 2012. The performance featured Kabuki and Noh actors interacting on stage. The venue was the Shunju-za, a full-fledged Kabuki theatre built within Kyoto Zōkei University. Before the staging of the play some of us who applied were taken to a backstage tour of the theatre. All I can say is: ‘holy cow!’ The theatre is unbelievable, and features a mawari butai rotating stage with two rectangular modules that can be lowered and raised independently, wiring for fly-over action, and of course a hanamichi. Japanese universities certainly do not lack funding for this kind of enterprise.

The massive cog that moves the rotating stage

All this beauty is used for all sorts of performances, from classical plays to more experimental stuff such as what I saw on Friday. I must say I was not impressed by the play. To put it bluntly, having Noh and Kabuki sharing the same space seems to be detrimental to both. Kabuki ends up looking like a children panto, while the Noh bits are deadly boring. One of the issues with the Noh actors, who interpreted rather dynamic characters (a warrior and a tiger) was that on such a large space Noh movements lose all intensity. I have seen Noh performed in wide spaces and I keep on feeling that Noh needs the cubical space produced by the ‘orthodox’ Noh stage. Wide spaces flatten the movements, and do not offer a sufficiently tight framing for the intense but minimal Noh gestures.

One thing that bugged my about the performance was the paradox of having different styles on stage without a real attempt at dialogue, except for the fact that… they were both on the same stage, and maybe for a couple of musical moments where the Noh orchestra (sitting on the left) ‘dialogued’ with the Kabuki orchestra (sitting on the right) – they actually played the same tune. This is so typical of the Japanese traditional arts. Fragmentation. Together, but apart. The result was actors who want to talk to each other, but can speak (or want to speak) only their native language, and in the end do not seem to really understand each other.

Those nerds who know videogames might get this: the performance looked like one of those beat’em’up video games, in which a sumo wrestler fights with a muay-thai boxer – it just looks unnatural.

Anyway, it was worth going and I hope I look forward to future Soseiza works that would more baldly experiment with a deeper interaction of their arts.

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