Dying certainly isn't simple in "Rakuda: Party with a Dead Man", one of the latest Cinema Kabuki films that will come to Toronto on February 5th. The comedy written by Onitaro Oka and originally produced in 1928 takes the death of a notorious neighbourhood troublemaker and turns him into the life of the party. After a night out with his buddy Hanji feasting on fugu Uma ends up stone cold dead. Obviously the chef didn't slice all of the poisonous flesh out of the puffer fish. Not much of a loss though as Uma has been a bully and a troublemaker in his tenement community for as long as anyone can remember. Yasu, a young neighbour woman remembers Uma getting rough with the local ladies and Kyuroku the junkman can tell stories about how Uma would steal a bowl of noodles, slurp them down and then sell the empty bowl for a few sen. This bad reputation doesn't seem to have affected Hanji's feelings of friendship for his departed drinking buddy though. He convinces Kyuroku to send Uma off in style, but in the most unlikely way possible. Hanji and Kyuroku carry the corpse to the house of Uma's landlord and threaten him that unless he provides them with sake and food for Uma's wake that they'll make Ujma's corpse dance in his living room. Morbid, yes. Crazy, absolutely, but the end result is a crowd-pleasing slapstick comedy.
Since Shochiku launched their Cinema Kabuki project in 2005 the studio has combined its history as Japan's most celebrated producer of kabuki theatre and its eight decades of film-making artistry to create a unique movie-going experience. Classic kabuki plays are shot using the latest in HD video technology and immersive surround sound to give film audiences both in Japan and now abroad the closest approximation to attending performances at Tokyo's Kabuki-za Theater as they will ever get. With this attention to detail a whole new generation of audiences are being exposed to kabuki for the first time; but it's not just the use of 21st century technology that is helping to redefine this venerable 17th century art form. While Cinema Kabuki has filmed some exquisite dance performances as "Triple Lion Dance" and "Heron Dance", also coming to the city next month, the project has also brought a string of wildly entertaining comedies to audiences, productions like "Rakuda: Party with a Dead Man", that make people rethink what kabuki theatre actually is.
"Rakuda" was based on a classic rakugo comic story and fills the stage with bawdy and often base humor. The result is pure hilarity. Obviously the actions of Hanji, a fellow who himself is a bit of a thug, and Kyuroku goes way beyond any sense of proper behaviour, but at its core that's what great comedy is about - making fun of the morals and conventions of our proper, buttoned down society. Of course a story this broad wouldn't work without great comedic actors, but thankfully that's exactly who theatrical producer Shigetami Enomoto has to work with. Respected kabuki actor Kanzaburo Nakamura brings all his comedic skill to making Kyuroku the junkman a totally believable and eccentric fellow. Throughout "Rakuda" he reacts with astonishment and amusement with equal measure and at certain points seems to crack up himslef at the hijinks going on onstage. Mitsugoro Bando brings an belt-and-braces practicality to Haji, but he's so pragmatic that he can't see that getting his friend's dead body to dance for his former landlord is more than a little bit insane. Really, if there is any straight man in "Rakudan" its Uma the dead man.
With these two pals lugging a corpse around stage it'll be hard for North American audiences to not start making "Weekend at Bernie's" jokes while watching "Rakuda", but in many ways this play is the 1920's kabuki equivalent to that zany 80's farce. "Rakudan" isn't all goofiness and laughs though. If you look past the jokes "Rakuda" is a pretty bleak look at poverty and the war between social classes. Uma is a deadbeat tenant who has stopped paying his rent months ago, mostly because he's absolutely flat broke. Hanji and Kyuroku aren't doing that much better, in fact if they don't blackmail Uma's landlord with their ghoulish performance they won't be able to afford to give their friend a funeral. Dragging a dead body around to get some booze and food... It adds a whole new meaning to "When you have nothing you have nothing to lose." It's all this - the unexpected slapstick humor and the dark social commentary - that makes "Rakuda: Party with a Dead Man" a real representative film in the Cinema Kabuki line-up. It takes what most people think kabuki is and turns it on its head. And it does this while everyone is doubled over laughing. Not a bad thing at all.