In this 10th-anniversary year of the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater -- a gift from Japan -- a Broadway-style musical comes to us from the Land of the Rising Sun. Based loosely on the life of the 18th-century master woodblock printer Kitagawa Utamaro, the resplendently costumed "Utamaro" is intriguingly hybrid in presentation, but ultimately Japanese in sensibility.
Originally created in 1972, "Utamaro" was the first full-scale Japanese theater effort produced in the style of the American musical comedy. Rewritten and remounted in 1985, it was a sold-out hit. Now it comes to Washington for just two nights, this Wednesday and Thursday at the Terrace.
Though staged in Japanese by a 50-member Japanese cast, "Utamaro" will include a printed scene-by-scene English plot synopsis plus translation of the songs, and with its westernized theme and musical score -- highlighted by songs like "The Woman in You," "Rockland" and "Ryogoku, My Town" (Marvin Hamlisch, look out!) -- it is readily accessible.
Producer and composer Taku Izumi is famous in Japan for his prolific output of both pop songs and musical scores, and with playwright-director Toshio Fujita forms a team in the forefront of the modern Japanese musical.
Certainly, the Japanese have their own long and distinguished history of theater -- no, bunraku, Kabuki being the classics -- but it should no longer surprise us how cleverly they borrow and blend foreign elements that suit them. Just as they borrowed Chinese characters for writing more than a millennium ago and Western technology for material progress in the last century, so they have adapted American theater to fulfill public demand for the "new" while still embracing native values.
Numerous Western musicals -- including classical opera -- have been adapted for Japanese audiences, and in "Utamaro" Izumi and Fujita have molded a Japanese subject matter into a borrowed form. That is, dialogue flows into and out of song (from ballads to quasi-rock), and the dancing ranges from traditional to Las Vegas revue.
Ostensibly, "Utamaro" conforms to two Broadway plot conventions -- one, the poor-boy-does-good-then-falls-from-grace plot; the other, the familiar boy-meets-girl-boy-loses-girl line. We follow Utamaro's rise from struggling young artist to success as popular artist. But since success tends to spoil everyone, he grows bored and decides to hold his own funeral to see who will come. Okita, said to be his first great model, is the only one overcome with grief and he decides to reveal himself. However, this annoys her -- her pride must be injured -- and she turns down his proposal of marriage.
In the second half of the story, the repressive central government enacts its notorious Kansei Reforms to curb public freedom; these included restrictions on entertainment, art, even the colors and patterns of people's clothing.
After creating a print of a forbidden subject -- the play suggests this was deliberate defiance of the authorities -- Utamaro is selected out for public punishment. The martyr-artist is dragged off to prison bravely singing "When the Curtain Comes Down." Individual defiance against authority may be a Western theme, but the moral of fleeting pleasures and ephemeral glories is very, very Japanese.
Naturally, the play takes liberties with details -- little is known about the real life of Utamaro -- but it provides glimpses into the fascinating history of late 18th-century Japan. With the rise of merchants and tradesmen, a world of leisure and luxury -- including theaters and teahouses, brothels and bathhouses -- flourished to cater to the new moneyed class. In the capital of Edo, now Tokyo, a whole district called the Yoshiwara was given over to the pleasure principle. At its height the Yoshiwara had an estimated 400 teahouses and more than 3,000 courtesans. When Utamaro was not dallying there, he was working in his studio to depict the women, the festivities and the rites of this demimonde.
In his time the art of the Japanese wood-block print reached its zenith, and he became its most famous proponent. One of his technical inventions was to add powdered mica to paper, thus giving his prints a frosty, iridescent sheen. A scene in the play explains the printmaking process in pantomime and song. Artists like Utamaro executed the designs, but other craftsmen cut and inked the wood blocks and pulled the prints.
Produced in volume and sold to the masses, the graphically bold, polychromatic pictures were the pop art of the era. Because they usually depicted the denizens and the languid diversions of what was known as the "floating world," the prints came to be known as ukiyo-e, floating-world pictures. Writer Asai Ryoi has described their attitude as "living only for the moment, gazing at the moon, the snow, the cherry blossoms and the autumn leaves, singing songs and drinking wine ... caring not a whit for the pauperism staring us in the face, refusing to be disheartened, like a gourd floating along with the river: this is what we call uykiyo."
Though Utamaro also prepared beautifully drawn and carefully observed collections of natural history ("The Insect Book," "The Bird Book"), landscape and daily life, he became the rage for his portraits of women. Tall, willowy creatures draped in luxurious kimonos, they were often languorously fanning themselves or setting combs in their lacquered hair or gliding past rows of cherry blossoms gazing with unperturbed eyes upon the world.
Of course, ukiyo-e was romanticized: There is no hint in these pictures that the Yoshiwara women were basically elegant captives -- sold, abducted or indebted into servitude. Furthermore, the artists set an unreal standard for feminine beauty that endures to this day. How many faces of women in modern Tokyo look like Utamaro prints? How many remain willowy, passive and so identical in their blank, undisturbed gaze? (In Utamaro's "Thee Beauties of the Present Day," the women depicted have different surnames but look like triplets.) The loveliness of Utamaro's women is impersonal, and the heroine of the play, Okita, was not necessarily the love of the real Utamaro's life.
And artistically gifted as he may have been, Utamaro was not as heroic as the play suggests. By 1804, the year of his three-day jail sentence for producing "offensive" prints (the problem was sticky politics, not pornography), his publisher-benefactor was dead and the artist was already at the ebb of his career. Furthermore, the jailing apparently resulted in a flood of orders for his prints -- whether due to sympathy or notoriety -- so some conjecture that it was overwork and general dissolution that led to his death two years later, not disgrace or rejection.
Again, it's the glimpse into the times of Utamaro that so intrigues. Scene 1 shows us a peasant revolt against the shogun. At the time the country was suffering the double bind of repressive and corrupt government on one hand and natural calamities on the other. Volcanoes were erupting; earthquakes toppled towns and cities; famine plagued the land. And yet the art of Utamaro and his fellow artists was all endless leisure, all floating-world dreaminess. In short, his pretty pictures were as escapist as much of popular culture is today.
Utamaro the 18th-century pop artist has become the subject of "Utamaro," the 20th-century pop musical. It's as diverting and as decorative as ukiyo-e was meant to be, and sometimes, let's admit it, that's enough.