Reviews Off-Broadway Published 19 November 2011

Kutsukake Tokijiro

Flea Theater ⋄ 10th November - 27th November 2011

Traditional and contemporary Japanese theatre combine.

Juliet Hindell

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.

Juliet Hindell

Juliet Hindell first went to the theatre to see “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” when she was four. She’s calculated that she has since seen that play more than 2 dozen times, once in Japanese. A Brit, Juliet has made her home in London, Paris, Washington D.C., Tokyo, Hong Kong, Charlotte NC and now New York. A journalist, Juliet wavers between new writing and musicals as her favorite forms of theatre, and of course Shakespeare.

Kutsukake Tokijiro Show Info

Directed by Jun Kim

Written by Shin Hasegawa

Cast includes Cecile Czeszynski, Alexandra Milne, Jan Mizushima, Atsuka Morinaga, Kazue Peck, Yasu Susuki, Siobhan Towey, Angela Tweed, Jiro Ueno, Ikechukwu Ufomadu, Hiroko Yonekura, Brent Yoshikami

Original Music Ryo Yoshimata

Show Details & Tickets

Running Time 1 hr, 15 min (with no intermission)


Enter your email address below to get an occasional email with Exeunt updates and featured articles.