by Hisashi Inoue
Ninagawa Theatre Company
Esplanade Theatre, Singapore

This rich and entertaining production by internationally renowned Japanese director Yukio Ninagawa, touring Singapore as part of the SRT's 3 Titans of Theatre series, is a true feast for the senses. Hisashi Inoue’s play revisits the legendary 1612 duel between swordsman Miyamoto Musashi (Tatsuya Fujiwara) and his opponent, Sasaki Kojirō (Junpei Mizobata) and asks a simple question. What if Musashi had not killed Kojirō during the duel?

Six years later, we see Musashi at a meditation retreat in the forest amidst priests and patrons. All of a sudeen, Kojirō intrudes this sanctum, declaring his aim of challenging Musashi to a rematch and getting his revenge once and for all. To ensure that his nemesis does not play him out, Kojirō insists on staying at the temple till the day of the rematch.

Photo Credit: Ninagawa Theatre Company

The world of this rural retreat is conjured up in vivid, intoxicating detail. In a beautiful sequence, trees glide symmetrically along the stage, giving one the impression of travelling deep into the forest and entering an altogether different realm. Throughout the play, trees framing the temple sigh, swoon and sway, the natural world in perfect symphony with the characters on stage.

Fujiwara and Mizobata are generally decent as the two warring men who, at times, come across as petty adolescents bickering with each other. The comparatively young actors are fun to watch but lack the stage presence that some of the seasoned performers in the supporting cast boast. Kohtaloh Yoshida is a scene-stealer as a priest who habitually breaks out into lusty recitations of Noh poetry and Keita Oishi, the slightly quirky temple abbot, provides some wonderful moments of comedy. One may be surprised by just how funny the production can be. In a rip-roaring scene, the entire group, while practicing their swordsmanship, break out into a mass dance to the tune of tango music. In another sequence, the priests decide to keep the two hot-headed young men apart by tying all their ankles together to form a “sandwich of stability”.

Part of what makes Ninagawa’s Musashi such a hit is that it is, at once, a superb marriage of the conventions of Noh and Kyōgen drama. Kayoko Shiraishi, a patron of the temple on the retreat, delivers a riveting account of an octopus being slain, complete with histrionic references to wasabi and relish being smeared on the dead creature - a scene that brings in the laughs even though it deals with a rather sombre subject.

Photo Credit: Ninagawa Theatre Company

That being said, I was less than enthused by the meandering nature of the narrative. Extended scenes devoted to Kojirō being 16th in line to the throne and a petty village rivalry felt unnecessary. The tale is wrapped up well enough in a scene that draws from the traditions of Mugen Noh with its supernatural elements, revealing that all the characters we had seen in the temple, apart from Kojirō and Musashi, were ghosts of people who regretted their untimely deaths and were trying against all odds to guide the young men into realizing the importance of moving on from their rivalry and embracing life. It’s a long and slightly convoluted journey but one that manages to deliver that all-important message: revenge is futile.

Ultimately, while Inoue's plot is not particularly groundbreaking and the comedy veers into the realm of the absurd every now and then, it is the lushness of the aesthetics that lingers in one's mind. Musashi is a silky, filmic escape into a different world and it is a world which Ninagawa conjures up with characteristic finesse.

The Crystalwords score: 3.5/5

*See my review of Peter Brook's The Suit, also part of SRT's 3 Titans of Theatre series, here.


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