So that's why olden Japan shut itself off from the west!
Someone in the 17th century obviously had a vision approximating the opening number of "Shiro," in which mindlessly smiling Japanese youths in skinny pants and miniskirts shake their shaggy heads and waggle their fingers to the beat of the Tokyo Kid Brothers, under a neon sign reading "1982 -- Tokyo." If that was where the smallest contact with the western world could conceivably lead, the only sensible response was to lock up tight.
But "Shiro," a rock musical by Yutaka Higashi playing at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater, looks at time from the modern point of view. To the 1982 kids, bopping back 350 years, Japanese tradition and culture are a novelty. First they scream with laughter over ritual suicide, Bonsai and wooden bathtubs, and then, seeing the potential for a pop fad, they change clothes, grab swords and sing, "You can be a Samurai!"
It is as if an American rock group popped back to scream at the Puritans, "Hey, teach us your values -- we want to be Puritans, too!" There is ample material for satire in the old and the stiff, but from those who are happily ignorant of any concept of form, restraint or duty, it becomes a sneer.
Yet the troupe is an appealingly energetic one, and the leading actor, Kyohei Shibata, for all the clunky lines he delivers in rote English ("May-be you were sent by my muzzer's muzzer's muzzer! We can love each ozzer over 350 years!"), is a charismatic performer. (The show is half in Japanese and half in English, but it is very difficult to figure out which half is which.)
The staging, mixing such staples of post- war Japanese extravaganzas as floating pink paper petals and twirling parasols with contemporary movements and pastiches of traditional theater and swordplay, is exciting. Although even the little one sees here of high Japanese culture makes it obvious that good general performers cannot duplicate the incredibly unified movements of actors or dancers whose discipline dates from early childhood, a smattering of such dignity comes through to mock the young mockers.
As a kaleidoscopic look at the temporal mix of cultures still existing in Japan, "Shiro" is an amusing curiousity. But when it attempts to be poetic ("You still dream of cherry blossoms?") or historic (the child- leader, Shiro, passes through on a lumpy blue horse) or philosophical ("For us, life is empty") it is a hilarious disaster. Surely the samurai must have been in danger of falling over their swords laughing at the topless lady rolling on the stage in inexplicable agony. SHIRO -- At the Terrace Theater through June 6.