A desire to redefine and revitalize Japanese theatre has been a trademark of Hideki Noda's work from day one. The 53-year-old Noda, one of today's most respected Japanese theatrical directors and playwrights, wrote his very first play titled "An Encounter Between Love and Death" when he was still in high school, and despite an abortive attempt at studying law he quickly came to his senses and pursued his passion for acting and the theatre. In 1976 as a student at Tokyo University he founded his first theatre company, Yume no Yuminsha, which thrived in the shogekijo, or "small theatre" scene, producing amateur underground plays until 1992 when Noda disbanded it before heading to the UK to study theatre further. When he returned to Japan a year later he took his newfound knowledge and formed his second theatre company, Noda Map, which is still active today. Noda's work mixes archaic elements of Japanese culture with cutting edge staging and witty comedy. It's a mix that's served Noda well, earning him the Asahi Performing Arts Award and the Yomiuri Theater Awards.
What does this key figure in late 20th and early 21st-century Japanese theatre have to do with a theatrical form as traditional as kabuki though? Besides his contemporary stage innovations Noda is also fond of looking back and injecting new life into classic Japanese theatre in much the same way that we've seen people Orson Welles and Kenneth Branagh update the works of William Shakespeare. In 2002 the famed kabuki actor Kanzaburo Nakamura invited Noda to bring his own unique slant to a traditional Japanese folk legend for a production at Tokyo's Kabuki-za Theatre. That legend was Nezumi Kozo.
Nezumi Kozo, a.k.a. Jirokichi The Rat, a.k.a. Jack the Mouse, was a master thief in Edo during the early decades of the 19th-century, burglarizing over 100 estates in Old Tokyo before being nabbed in 1832. While the fact of the matter was that Nezumi was probably lining his pockets and paying off alimony to several wives the poor and working class elevated this thief to nearly Robin Hood-like status, spinning tales of him slipping into wealthy homes only to shower his booty of gold coins down onto those living in the slums of the city. The legend of Nezumi Kozo has grown over time, helped in no small part by several stage and screen incarnations, but it was Kanzaburo Nakamura's wish to give Nezumi another facet by having Hideki Noda pen an original play about "Jack the Mouse".
In "Nezumi Kozo: Noda Version" the master thief and guardian of the down trodden has already gained legendary status. Starting as a kabuki play within a kabuki play featuring Nezumi Kozo as its star the action quickly spills out onto the street in front of the theatre where we meet Santa (played by Kanzaburo Nakamura) a miserly, but good-natured coffin builder. Santa is happiest when he sniffs death in the air. It's good for business after all and it doesn't matter to him how close to home death strikes. When he learns that his brother has died and that he's invited to the reading of his will he thinks, "Build a coffin and gain an inheritance!" Things don't pan out as he hopes though when all his brother's wealth is handed off to the goody-goody Yokichi. In an attempt to equalize the wealth (in his favour of course) Santa sets out to steal his brother's inheritance back for himself and to aide in this goal he takes on the persona of Nezumi Kozo. It works remarkably well. Santa even let's the audience in on the secret - even if he gets caught breaking into an estate people let him go after learning that they've just met the great Nezumi Kozo. It's a great racket, but life for Santa/ Nezumi becomes a lot more complex when he gets mixed into the double crossing plans of Yokichi, a city magistrate and several wives and mistresses.
With its visually dynamic sets, wonderfully bold comedic performances, and cheeky visual and textual nods to Santa/ Nezumi Kozo being more than a little like another Western cultural icon, Santa Claus, "Nezumi Kozo: Noda Version" transforms not only the legend of Jack the Mouse, but also audiences' (most Western audiences certainly) preconceived notions about what a kabuki play is. Many would hear kabuki and think mannered performances and an obscure storyline buried under exquisite costumes and pounds of stage make-up, but Noda manages to turn it into something totally contemporary.
It's for this reason that Noda is probably the ideal director for Shochiku to enlist for its ongoing Cinema Kabuki project, even more than well-known film director Yoji Yamada. While Yamada's contributions to the history of Japanese cinema is unparalleled what with his 48-film "Tora-san" series and contemporary classics such as "The Yellow Handkerchief" and "The Hidden Blade" the touches that he brings to his Cinema Kabuki productions, "Triple Lion Dance" and "The Sentimental Plasterer", are nostalgic, homey, and somewhat reverent to kabuki traditions. Meanwhile Noda's approach with "Nezumi Kozo" is flashy, using jaw dropping sets, and downright mischievious, giving Kanzaburo Nakamura and the rest of the respected Nakamura family of kabuki actors more than enough chance to strut their comedic stuff. Viewers of "Nezumi Kozo: Noda Version" need only listen to the laughter coming from the audience in the Kabuki-za Theatre to know that Noda has accomplished what Shochiku set out to do with Cinema Kabuki in the first place - bring kabuki theatre to the people of the world and remind them that it is still a vibrant and entertaining art form.
Toronto audiences can catch "Nezumi Kozo: Noda Version" at the Scotiabank Theatre on Sunday, November 15th at 3:30PM. For more details click here.