Kafka on the Shore

based on the novel by Haruki Murakami
adapted for the stage by Frank Galati
Ninagawa Company
Esplanade Theatre, Singapore

Theatre luminary Yukio Ninagawa, whose riveting samurai drama Musashi was seen in Singapore two years ago, is back with an adaptation of Haruki Murakami's hugely popular 2002 novel Kafka on the Shore as part of his 80th birthday celebrations. While the famed director could not attend the run in person due to his poor health, he delivers an endearing, exquisitely staged production that will enthrall fans of the book and lovers of theatre alike.

Photo Credit: Esplanade

Kafka is a pastiche of two stories that unfold in parallel. Fifteen-year-old Kafka Tamura runs away from home to escape a chilling prophecy and takes refuge in a library presided over by the mysterious Miss Saeki and her gender-bending assistant Oshima. Nakata, a sweet and simple-minded old man who spends his days searching for lost cats, goes on a series of adventures across the country when things take a wrong turn.

These twin plots are presented as vignettes in transparent boxes that glide across the stage. Ninagawa describes being influenced by the dioramas in the American Museum of Natural History in New York and the sensation one gets is of pages of a book springing luxuriously to life; trees, buses, bookshelves and vending machines appear in quick succession. This visual coup also allows the storylines to cleverly bleed into each other. A scene where Kafka reads aloud from a book about the trials of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann is poignantly juxtaposed with the image of serial cat-killer Johnnie Walker as he prepares his tools to rob the lives of these helpless creatures. In another sequence, a snatch of Miss Saeki's haunting song 'Kafka on the Shore' is overheard by Nakata seemingly at random, causing him to declare that he needs to search for an entrance stone.

Photo Credit: Takahiro Watanabe

Equally inspired is the personification of the voice in Kafka's head - the Boy Called Crow - who appears as a edgy, persuasive young man dressed in black. It's strongly hinted that this subconscious part of Kafka is the young Miss Saeki's paramour who had perished in a student skirmish. When Kafka and Saeki make love, Crow gazes at them from the periphery like a spectral presence, almost projecting his own desire on this woman he is unable to be with.

Ninagawa has assembled a strong cast led by award-winning actress Rie Miyazawa as the poised and enigmatic Miss Saeki, Nino Furuhata as plucky teenager Kafka and Katsumi Kiba as the immensely likeable Nakata. A scene of Nakata speaking to various cats, played by actors in cat costumes who affect playful, uproarious antics, is a runaway crowd favourite. There are equally engaging turns by Masato Shinkawa as swaggering villain Johnnie Walker and Masakatsu Toriyama as prescient pimp Colonel Sanders, men who wear their pop culture images with tongues firmly in cheek.

The constantly changing set is a veritable sight to behold and the army of stage hands tirelessly running around for three hours to keep everything moving smoothly deserve plaudits for their first rate work. We may be dazzled by fish spectacularly raining across the stage one moment while in another we are confronted by a fridge containing severed cat heads or the garish neon lights of a love hotel. This effortless admixture of the surreal and sordid gives the narrative its thrust and captures the nuanced beauty of Murakami's prose.

Photo Credit: Esplanade

The other pillar of Ninagawa's production is the superlative lighting design. Effects like lightning, rain and the dappled sunlight of a forest are conjured up with aplomb, sometimes on a completely barren stage, creating truly stunning visual tableaus. There is a sense of symmetry and grandeur in the overall aesthetic that elevates but never overwhelms the acting.

For a book written in Japanese, translated into English, adapted into a play in English and finally translated back into Japanese, one hardly feels that any injustice has been done to the plot and playwright Frank Galati has crafted a text that remains extremely faithful to the book while allowing sharper contrasts and contours to emerge. One cannot deny that Galati is, at times, almost plodding in his fidelity to the plot. The play can easily be trimmed in length and suffers from uneven pacing; after a period of stately, awe-inspiring exposition, the second half seems to canter towards the end.

Ultimately, Ninagawa has helmed a production that both intrigues, inspires and perfectly recreates the quirky, meandering and deeply empathetic world of Murakami. This is a breathtakingly beautiful evening: the work of a master of the pen being brought to life by a master of the stage.

The Crystalwords score: 4/5


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