Kanzaburo Nakamura XVIII
Running time: 154 min.
Reviewed by Chris MaGee
A noble family from Kyoto has lost a precious carp scroll that was given to them by the Emperor. The family is left in tatters its young lord Yoshida Matsuwaka is hiding in Edo, passing himself off as a common clerk at an antique dealers in hopes he can track down his family's treasure. His fiancée, the Princess Nowake, is also hiding in Edo as a fren seller as she searches for Matsuwaka. This might get a bit complicated as Okumi, the daughter of the antique dealer that Matsuwaka is working for, is in love with him. An older man named Kanjuro actually has the carp scroll in his possession, and guess what? He's in love with Okumi, and he wants to use the scroll as an engagement gift for his beloved. While all this romance is going on Matsukawa's friend Jinza watches over the disguised nobleman and his search for the scroll. Into this elaborate plot of cross, double-cross and sometimes triple-cross comes Hokaibo, a "depraved priest" with an agenda of his own. This whole cast of characters (and a few unmentioned here) arrive on the stage for Kazuyoshi Kushida's "Memories of the Sumida River: Hokaibo", one of the latest film installments in Shochiku's Cinema Kabuki project coming to the Scotiabank Theatre in Toronto between February 22nd and 23rd. If you were thinking that the title conjures up a delicate, intriguing and quaint film of a kabuki stage drama think again. This film, it's title shortened to "Hokaibo" for its Canadian run, is straight out farce which uses its circuitous plot as a jumping off point for wicked humor, jest, the occasional grizzly violence and some truly spectacular dance.
There are more than a few classic and deliciously mannered kabuki performances on display (especially from Kantaru Nakamura and Shichinosuke Nakamura as the deposed nobles) that take place as those pursuing the carp scroll converge on a tea house in Fukagawa in Old Edo, but these are not the focus or intent of "Hokaibo". It's contemporary kabuki actor extraordinaire Kanzaburo Nakamura as the impoverished priest Hokaibo and Takashi Sasano, who many will recognize from his recent film roles in Yojiro Takita's "Departures" and Amir Naderi's "Cut", as Kanjuro who are the pace cars for the rest of the cast of this comic tragedy. As the players all fall into the various schemes, kidnappings and even dismemberment and murders as the jockey for this coveted scroll Nakamura XVIII's and Sasano's characters are there to, as the British would say, "take the piss" out of the kabuki pageantry of it all. "Quiet! Quiet!" Hokaibo tells the accompanying musicians at the side of the stage as he digs a hole to drop an unsuspecting enemy into, "I'm telling you in normal Japanese!" No kabuki refinement here just a moment mocking Hamlet's great "Alas poor Yorick, I knew him Horatio," speech in which Hokaibo (or is it Nakamura) calling an unearthed skull Takashi Sasano and then putting the cranium with his shovel for a hole in one. There are many moments like this in "Hokaibo" when the artistry of the kabuki theatre seems to break down and things look more like a stand-up comedy act for the 56-year-old Nakamura. He wades into the audience to ask them to read a note crucial to the plot then proceeds to ask people where they are from like a Las Vegas lounge lizard. He mocks fellow actors and their stiff kabuki poses and slow, deliberate line delivery, and he even breaks character and makes an off colour joke about the current U.S.. President Barack Obama. Sasano stand right along side him, making a joking reference to the 43rd U.S. president George W. Bush. It's strange to think that Nakamura XVIII's and Sasano's characters are the bad guys of this play/ film, responsible for some of the most gory moments right before the 10-minute intermission.
It's what happens after the intermission in "Hokaibo" that truly surprises and makes this over two and a half hour performance the must see of this round of Cinema Kabuki's Canadian screenings. Suddenly, as the curtain is pulled back, we are back in the world of traditional kabuki theatre, or if not traditional kabuki then a production that takes its mission to wow its audience very, very seriously. Ghosts of certain characters killed in the play (we won't give away exactly who they are) assemble on the banks of the Sumida River to perform a dance that is equal parts classic Japanese artistry as it is Busby Berkley. cheery blossom petals fall from the rafters and then suddenly the back wall of the Heisei Nakamura Tent Theater in Asakusa is pulled back and we are on the tree-lined banks of the real Sumida River. It's a breathtaking moment to behold, and one fans of Japanese theatre, film and culture won't want to miss.
Read more about the Japan Foundation's presentation of "Hokaibo" and three other of Shochiku's Cinema Kabuki films at the Scotibank Theatre by clicking here.