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Shintoku-Maru--The Modern Meeting the Medieval

As the Japanese musical drama Shintoku-Maru opens, four welders on a catwalk create a fireworks shower of sparks, while below, a world of odd characters (midgets, clowns, a bride with a parasol, etc.), reminiscent of those seen in Commedia dell'arte or in the late Edo period's depiction of misemono (sideshow freaks and acrobats), parade haphazardously like modern traffic in a large urban center but located in a third world country.
The noise of the welding is penetrated by the sonorous sound of a train whistle. The closing scene of Shintoku-Maru repeats this contradiction of the modern meeting the medieval, except the soothing sound of the train has been replaced by the roar of jet engines. In this way, internationally known director Ukio Ninagawa shows the passage of time in poet-dramatist Shuji Terayama's Shintoku-Maru, which has been adapted by Terayama's acolyte Rio Kishida.


Because the Dresser could not discover the date of the world premiere of Terayama's originally conceived drama, which aired without music, she can only say with certainty that Terayama worked in the avant-garde movement of the 1960s and '70s and this drama was part of the timeframe. However, Terayama based Shintoku-Maru on an ancient Noh story. Director Ninagawa, known for being one of the great image-makers of modern theatre, has infused some the stylized movements of Noh in this coming-of-age, Oedipal story. The United States premiere of Shintoku-Maru at the Kennedy February 7, 2008, aired in Japanese without English surtitles, which the Dresser did not find problematic since spectacle is all-important in this work. However, that is not to say that one should gloss over the story. The production opens with a recorded reading in English by Alan Rickman of the page-long synopsis appearing in the accompanying playbill. The recording by Rickman was made in 1997 during the Ninagawa production of Shintoku-Maru at the Barbican Theatre in London.

The story is complicated and essentially involves Shintoku-Maru, a teenage boy (played by the popular Japanese actor Tatsuya Fujiwara) who has lost his mother. His father decides to reconstitute the family and he does this by buying an actor from a theater company down on its luck. Hoping for a better life, Nadeshiko (played by Kayoko Shiraishi) enters the family with her much younger son. Immediately, Shintoku is attracted to Nadeshiko but his behavior is angry agitation linked with continuing grief over the loss of his mother.
The interactions between Shintoku and Nadeshiko devolve and result in surreal scenes involving black magic, Shintoku making a nightmare trip to the underworld, and Nadeshiko invoking a curse on her stepson that blinds him. Shintoku gets his revenge by disguising himself as Nadeshiko and savagely attacking his stepbrother. Despite physical violence, the end of the play sees Shintoku and Nadeshiko locked in a passionate embrace with Shintoku begging his stepmother to consummate the love he knows she feels for him because if she does this, he believes he will be reborn as her child.


In many way, Shintoku-Maru is like Robert Wilson's music-theater work I La Galigo: arresting images and pageantry, story of incest, folk tale origins, and a world larger than the reality of daily life. What is different about these two pieces of experimental theater is that Ninagawa's production of Shintoku-Maru for all its old world tradition and its throwback population of misemono is about the intrusion of the modern world. Similar to the music of I La Galigo, the music developed for Shintoku-Maru is inspired by traditional compositions (the Dresser thinks one could safely say folk melodies). The difference is that music of Shintoku-Maru sounds like something that would play in a 1960s bar in Saigon. (The Dresser is probably stepping out of bounds here because she has never been to Saigon, but what she means is that the music has the energy and phrasing of contemporary popular music that isn't particularly sophisticated and displays no influences of jazz, blues, or rock.)

Another difference between these two experimental works that makes Shintoku-Maru feel more modern is that religion plays no role in this work. I La Galigo has a real life, practicing Bissu priest presiding over the play. And since religion plays no role in Shintoku-Maru, the physical world and the display of the body are more prominent. Shintoku takes a bath on stage undressing in plain view of the audience. His scene of domestic nudity contrasts drastically with a wild dance scene of the misemono where one female character every bit as large as a sumo wrestler wears only a kind of apron at her waist and swings her pendulous breasts with demonic glee. Another misemono female wears modern black lingerie that contrasts with the heavily clothed and veiled misemono bride.

Given props like a motor scooter, bicycle, and that strange halogen light bulb swinging over the heads of the reconciling Shintoku and his step-mother, the Dresser would never say about this piece as she did about I La Galigo that she could imagine it might present like a folkloric show for tourists.
No indeed, Shintoku-Maru is for a worldly audience with some years of experience who won't freak out that Ninagawa makes us see the craters on the all-too-close moon or Shintoku-Maru is for a twenty-somethingish audience who has grown up with a steady diet of contradictions.


Margo Berdeshevsky's poem "Long Drum" speaks to rebirth in a way that unites pageantry with what is domestic and maternal. Though the Dresser neglected to introduce the cherry tree and its blossoms earlier in this discussion of Shintoku-Maru, that tree and its blossoms, ever the symbol of Japan, arise and fall when Shintoku mistakes Nadeshiko for his mother. "Long Drum" provides a perfect afterimage for Shintoku-Maru.


Long drum rolling peach
branch : linaria cymbalaria
: Mother of thousands.
Tongue-tied in adoration
I'll kneel to you who have
been losing faith like laundry,
all slow thrummed hours of it.
is the basket of fallen.
is that heroism I have remembered
to hate. it,
falling fingernails and eager bees,
giddy already with one single day
call it spring, and
it is uncertain, pink.
Latin, or lacking
any language,
how this new air dresses up
with its dried elegiac tears. No more
winter. No more Septembers.
It reappears. Reinvents. Grows
a desert.
And there is, of course, a tree
rising. I who want to trust in it.
Each rare petal.

by Margo Berdeshevsky
from But a Passage in Wilderness (Sheep Meadow Press 2007)

Copyright © 2007 Margo Berdeshevsky


Comments (5)

I missed the details about where this was being performed dates?etc. but fascinated!

The Dresser:

Even with the Dresser working liking a whirling dervish, there was no writing, assembling, and posting this review in enough time for anyone to actually read the review and make it to the Kennedy Center before the production was done. There are other shows in this Japanese festival and don't miss the robot dressed in a kimono who answers questions from lobby visitors but as far as the Dresser could determine Shintoku-Maru was the one event not to miss.

Donna Denize:

Because the Japanese teacher at my school had an extra ticket, I saw this Japanese opera last night. Powerful. I was reluctant to go since it's been quite busy recently and I was exhausted, but I'm glad now that I went with her and a few other colleagues.

Charles Cabell:

I very much enjoyed reading your post. I just saw the play tonight in Saitama, Japan. I live and work in Japan. I also am fluent in Japanese so I wanted to comment that, actually, Shintoko-Maru is infused throughout with religious imagry and themes. Indeed, contrary to almost all of the commentary I have seen in English, the Japanese program explains that the work is originally based on works that came out of a Buddhist theater that developed in the Muromachi period. The Buddhist plays were called Sekkyo-bushi and actually pre-date Noh. The purpose of the plays was to dramatize difficult Buddhist teachings in order to make them more accessible to lay people. The point I am making is that Shintoku-Maru is a religious parable. The modern version makes use of Buddhist chants, and the sets incorporate stupas and other Buddhist iconography.

In any case, I think the play goes beyond any description. I loved the sets, lighting and, especially, the music. Thank you for your article.

The Dresser:

The Dresser is grateful to Charles Cabell, who half a world away, has brought new learning to this extraordinary act of theater. Isn't it interesting that religion figures in prominently, but to Western sensibilities, that connection was too subterranean to access. As a practitioner of yoga, the Dresser should have intuited that element of spirituality. Nevertheless, she remains thankful for this kind and informative comment!

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