April 27, 2009

Sugawara and the Secrets of Calligraphy

One of the miracles of our age is the ability, through recorded material (the DVD in particular) to witness extended performances that one would normally never have access to.

Do you wish to watch the complete Shakespeare War of the Roses series?  Do you want to watch all of Shakespeare?  Do you want to watch all of the Mozart operas?  Do you want to watch an orchestra perform the complete Beethoven symphony cycle (or a second Beethoven symphony cycle?)  Do you want to watch the full Wagner Ring cycle?  Do you want to watch a second Ring cycle?  A third Ring cycle?  A feminist Ring cycle?

This list could be continued for a very long time.  I am fortunate to live in a cultural center, so I have had a chance to see Ring cycles, Shakespeare cycles, and Beethoven cycles with my own eyes – but those were frankly once in a lifetime events.  (And some cycles are simply impossible – even if one were in Salzburg in 2006, it was simply logistically impossible to watch all 22 Mozart operas performed in his 250th year.)

Now, if this is true for Western performances, it is even more true for Eastern performances.  Major Chinese and Japanese dramatic works are typically from 6 to 24 hours long, and thus in an evening out, one will only get scenes from a performance.  While these can be quite satisfying, they simply do not reflect the genius of the author.

A particular wonderful and hard-to-see type of performance is Japanese bunraku – the Japanese puppet theater.  This is quite different from Western puppet theater – the puppets are half-sized representations of human and each is manipulated by a team of three performers, which will often be present on stage.  A shamisen player performs music while a singer chants the dialogue.  Because the performance is small, even the two large bunraku theaters (the Osaka Bunraku National Theater and the bunraku stage at the Tokyo National Theater) can only seat a few hundred attendees – and these performances are sporadic.  Still, bunraku theater is something special – whenever I visit Japan, I try to attend a performance, even if I have to substantially alter my schedule to attend.  I have never been disappointed.  A single ticket to an afternoon matinee performance can easily cost $100 to $200.  Most of the kabuki repertoire is adapted from the Japanese puppet theater (and thus come the famous scenes where the human kabuki performers mimic puppet characters.)

One of the more famous plays in the bunraku repertoire is Sugawara and the Secrets of Calligraphy.  This script has been translated into English (and I can recommend that translation).  Scenes from the play can be found in a cheap Dover volume and in an older Oxford anthology.  There is a synopsis of the play here; it is loosely based on a real historical character, Sugawara no Michizane (845-903).  Sugawara was a calligraphy master and one of the two leading ministers in the royal court; and the play discusses the manuevers  – it concerns the political machinations as his rival Fujiwara no Tokihira tricks the emperor into exiling Sugawara.  Sugawara was a leading poet, and the 1746 play is a masterwork of Japanese writing, with long poetic sections.

Now, I’ve not come across a complete performance of this play – even one spread over several days or weeks.  Indeed, several parts of the play – including the first scene and especially the fifth scene are almost never performed.  So you can imagine my excitement when the Japanese public broadcaster NHK released a complete nine and half hour DVD set of the performance.  (If you want to shop around, the Japanese DVD code is NSDX-13208.)  Amazon Japan sold me a copy – with overnight shipping from Japan, for $140 – less than I have paid for some single bunraku tickets (the box set was released on April 24th, and it was mailed via FedEx from Amazon on April 23rd at 3PM, so that its buyers could have their copies on the next day.  My copy arrived in the US on April 24th – just before 10AM).  But my real delight came when I started watching.

This is no ordinary DVD set – it is a compilation of performances drawn over a period of five decades – including a few classics in black and white:

  • Act I Scene 1
        The Imperial Palace
        (filmed in May 1972)
  • Act I Scene 2
        The Bank of the Kamo River
    (filmed in September 1996)
  • Act I Scene 3
        Transmission of the Secrets
    (filmed in September 1996)
  • Act I Scene 4
        Outside the Gate
        (filmed in September 1996)
  • Act II Scene 1
        Sweet Words on the Journey
        (filmed in May 1972)
  • Act II Scene 2
        Awaiting the Tide at Yasui
        (filmed in May 1972)
  • Act II Scene 3
        The Chastising
        (filmed in April 2002)
  • Act II Scene 4
        Rosy Breaks the Dawn
        (filmed in January 1983)
  • Act II Scene 5
        Sugawara’s Farewell
        (filmed in January 1983)
  • Act III Scene 1
        Breaking the Carriage Apart
        (filmed in 1959)
  • Act III Scene 2
        Sake from a Tea-whisk
    (filmed in April 1989)
  • Act III Scene 3
        The Quarrel
        (filmed in April 1989)
  • Act III Scene 4
        The Death of Sakuramaru
        (filmed in April 1989)
  • Act IV Scene 1
        Mount Tenpai
        (filmed in April 2002)
  • Act IV Scene 2
        North Saga Village
        (filmed in May 1972)
  • Act IV Scene 3
        The New Student
        (filmed in April 1989)
  • Act IV Scene 4
        The Village School
        (filmed in April 1989)
  • Act V
        Extraordinary Events at the Palace
    (filmed in May 1972)

This extraordinary juxtaposition of filmings from 1959, 1972, 1989, 1996, and 2002 not only allows one to see a complete play that is almost never performed complete, it allows us to compare classic performances from across three generations.  The effect is intoxicating.

The box set includes a full copy of the script – in Japanese.  Fortunately, the DVDs include full English subtitles.  The box set is region-free and NTSC, so it can play on any American DVD player.  Because of the age of the films, all footage is in 4:3 format.

Most likely, this box set will be too expensive for casual purchase, but it is bound to appeal to aficionados.  But I do encourage you to ask your library to acquire a copy – watching this set allows you to experience something you are unlikely to ever encounter – a complete performance with expert troupes of this classic play.

No comments: