It helps to watch Kutsukake Tokijiro, a musical, multi-media production currently playing at the Flea Theater, with the rose-tinted spectacles of nostalgia that drive much of modern Japanese film. In this recreation of a 1928 play, it is the bygone days when highway gangsters were part Robin Hood, part samurai that warm the cockles of the audience’s heart. And while it helps to have a healthy interest in Japanese contemporary pop culture and a knowledge of its traditional theatre to get all the different nuances and influences, this is still a lively and pleasurable trip to Japan without the airfare.
The play’s eponymous lead Tokijiro is a lone wolf gambler who wanders from place to place – a character so typical in Japanese drama they have their own genre known as Matatabi stories. Gamblers were unwelcome at inns and frequently sought a bed for the night with the local gangster boss who in turn would prevail upon the guest to act as assassin of their enemies.
Here, Tokijiro, played with appropriate charisma by Yasu Suzuki, must murder Sanzo the last of leader of a gangster clan, a role taken by director Jun Kim. But the dying Sanzo asks Tokijiro to take care of his pregnant wife and son. Our hero must then fulfill this duty, meaning Sanzo’s wife is taken care of by his murderer. It is such devotion to duty that can cause a nostalgic lump in the throat for a Japanese audience.
All this plot develops at a cracking pace, dialogue interspersed with tableau-esque stage fights that draw heavily on tachimawari, the stylized violence of Japan’s traditional kabuki theatre. The fights are even introduced by the tsuke, the beating of two wooden blocks on a board just as in kabuki.
The stage has a minimal set, designed by Iwao Morohashi, just a shoji window to one side from which narrator Kazue Peck helpfully sets up the action and a large screen displaying videos by Yoan Trellu. These punctuate the action with, in one instance, delicately falling cherry blossoms.
Tokijiro takes on three comic opponents including a female ninja played by Alexandra Milne, straight from contemporary manga or anime. Brent Yoshikami plays a swaggering young blade and Ikechukwu Ufomadu completes the trio and later does a fine turn as a hopeless drunk. Soulful music particularly a song performed by Angela Tweed adds to the melancholy tone of longing for another time.
It is a uniquely bilingual play. Much of the play is performed in Japanese but opera-like surtitles help carry the production. Other notable scenes are played by non-Japanese actors and are in English. This unusual blend of linguistics, when combined with the animated graphics, live music and dance makes this a multi-cultural experience that is unusual and refreshing.
At the heart of the show lies Okinu, the gangster’s wife, played by Hiroko Yonekura. Her performance of a traditional Japanese festival dance is the stand out in this very physical, movement-dominated production. She also has a sweetness that makes the gangster’s obligation to her all the more understandable.
Jiro Ueno and Jan Mizushima fill the typical roles of comical innkeepers with a warmth that is as comforting as a bowl of ramen to a homesick Japanese person.
Indeed, the overwhelming Japaneseness of Kutsukake Tokijiro is a large part of its appeal. Go – but know you’ll want to eat sushi afterwards.