'Shintoku-Maru': At a Loss for Words

Although the play suffers from a lack of translation, the intensity that Kayoko Shiraishi and Tatsuya Fujiwara bring to their love-hate relationship is not lost.
Although the play suffers from a lack of translation, the intensity that Kayoko Shiraishi and Tatsuya Fujiwara bring to their love-hate relationship is not lost. (Kennedy Center)
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By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 9, 2008

Among the adventurous conjurers of stage pictures, Japanese director Yukio Ninagawa surely ranks as world-class. The eerie sight of the conflicted young hero of "Shintoku-Maru" wandering an underworld of wagon-size boats, crowded with candles and what look like jellyfish dangling from long poles, speaks hauntingly in the universally incongruous language of tortured sleep.

Ninagawa's estimable gift for spectacle is on display through tonight at the Kennedy Center in the U.S. premiere of the slightly uneven "Shintoku-Maru," an adaptation by Rio Kishida of Shuji Terayama's play based on a centuries-old Japanese story. It's fortunate that the venue for this opening act of the center's Japan festival is the Opera House, because the scale and emotional intensity of the piece -- bordering on the histrionic -- puts you in mind of the mighty winds of grand opera.

I'd love to say that the visual dimension of "Shintoku-Maru" was enough, but a half-hour into the production, I found myself craving more information than I had access to. Because of the language barrier, the compact, 90-minute work at times lulls you into a state of woozy indifference. A rather esoteric decision was made by the director not to provide a running English translation of "Shintoku-Maru's" dialogue scenes. The intention for non-Japanese speakers seems to be an unadulterated immersion in Ninagawa's refined design elements.

In some productions, words might indeed be secondary. (As a leftover from a presentation of the piece in London a decade ago, British actor Alan Rickman recorded a plot synopsis that is played before the show over the public-address system.) The fabric of "Shintoku-Maru," however, is of some psychological complexity, and the protracted scenes in which the teenage Shintoku-Maru (Tatsuya Fujiwara) vents his feelings or engages in battles of will with his stepmother-to-be, Nadeshiko (Kayoko Shiraishi), cry out for the explication that much of an American audience is denied.

The melding in "Shintoku-Maru" of ways ancient and contemporary could also be felt more profoundly if we were more fully apprised of what was going on. The play documents the mixture of revulsion and sexual attraction that wells up in the young man upon the arrival of Nadeshiko, who's been purchased by his father (Toru Shinagawa) as a replacement for his dead wife.

The scene of Nadeshiko's selection from among a pool of available women (the program says they are "traveling players who have fallen on hard times") is especially weird and wonderful. A wooden structure divided into stalls is wheeled into place, each stall containing a middle-aged woman, in the garish abstract mask of a seal, performing a domestic chore. (The seal, the program tells us, connotes in Japanese lore a householder's rights.)

You get in this moment a sense of both the mundane and the exotic that "Shintoku-Maru" traverses. The evening is framed by two mesmerizing sequences in which a Fellini-esque parade of midgets, clowns, vagabonds, souvenir-hawkers and dancers advances to the lip of the stage and then retreats. Somehow, the torment in Shintoku-Maru's imagination is expressed in the melancholy, imagistic world in which these fringe personalities also dwell.

Ninagawa alternates scenes of remarkable fantasy with those outlining the blander rituals of domestic life; the work is playing here with the changing nature of the traditional Japanese family. An agile crew rolls out the numerous modular pieces that come together as the screened rooms of Shintoku-Maru's house. They are later separated again, to become the rooms of the many other families of the city, any one of which looks happier to the boy than his own.

The production's voracious leads, Fujiwara and Shiraishi, circle each other warily, lashing out and pulling back, wounding, consolingly. (The intense accompaniment of Akira Miyagawa's score occasionally puts too much accent on the melodramatic.) In concert, though, with the outstanding lighting by Sumio Yoshii and sets by Nobutaka Kotake, Ninagawa and his stars go a long way toward giving color and definition to a world that remains just beyond our reach.

Shintoku-Maru, by Shuji Terayama. Adapted by Rio Kishida. Directed by Yukio Ninagawa. Costumes, Lily Komine; sound, Masahiro Inoue; choreography, Kiyomi Maeda, Kinnosuke Hanayagi. With Kohta Nakasone, Kenichi Ishii. About 90 minutes. Through tonight at the Kennedy Center. Call 202-467-4600 or visit

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