Returning to more esoteric territory after directing “All My Sons” on Broadway, Simon McBurney’s latest is a gorgeous miniature in a series of over-elaborate postmodern frames. Performed in Japanese and originally staged in Tokyo last year, the narrative heart of “Shun-kin” is an angular, haunting story of sadomasochistic love in 19th century Osaka, written by Japanese scribe Jun’ichiro Tanizaki in 1933. McBurney’s elegant physical staging — featuring puppetry, live music and fluid movement of props and set pieces by a talented ensemble — creates a hypnotically insular onstage world. But narrative and directorial embellishments add levels of complication that dissipate the material’s power.
Shun-kin’s tale starts slowly, with several layers of storytelling initially introduced. The cast appears in contemporary Western dress, addressing the audience as themselves; a recorded voice-over begins Shun-kin’s story; a contemporary narrator figure is introduced, a middle-aged woman (Ryoko Tateishi) who comes to a radio studio to record an audio version of Tanizaki’s story (and who, we discover through some clunky one-way phone calls, is herself engaged in a kinky liaison with a much younger man).
As she reads, the story of Shun-kin starts coming to life before the audience’s eyes — and the magic begins. Shun-kin as a child is represented by a life-sized, kimono-clad puppet, beautifully voiced by Eri Fukatsu; slowly, over the production’s meditative, intermissionless two hours, the character takes on human form, as the puppet is replaced first by a mask-wearing actress (Junko Uchida), then another actress with her face revealed (Fukatsu).
Sasuke, the adoring servant boy whom Shun-kin virtually enslaves, eventually ending up in a mutually dependant abusive relationship with him, is also played by a series of increasingly older actors, most affectingly by the youthful Songha Cho.
These onstage transformations bring focus to the story — and the relationship it describes. Honjoh Hidetaro’s live playing of the samisen (the distinctive Japanese three-stringed guitar), which both underscores the action and becomes part of the story (Shun-kin and Sasuke are both musicians), adds considerably to the delicate, shifting atmosphere.
Tanizaki’s story suggests the dark corners of human existence that can never fully be understood; the twisting and turning, stopping and starting of the narrative are all part of this theme and effect.
All very interesting, and all very (at Tanizaki’s time of writing) proto-postmodernist, but the theme of indeterminacy — and the status of what we’re watching as itself a representation — is too emphatically underlined by the various narrative framings. Such self-conscious, metatheatrical staging techniques were the innovative calling card of the 1980s-90s generation of auteur directors such as McBurney and Robert Lepage, but this many years on, they feel stale.
McBurney also ends the evening with a blast of hyper-theatrical bombast that contrasts radically with the delicacy and indirection of what has come before.That final image seems to depict the West, or progress, crushing traditional Japan. An interesting and defensible theme, but the moment has little to do with the piece’s previous 120 minutes. It’s a testament to the company’s brilliant playing that the questions raised about the limits of what can be known of another person nonetheless haunt the imagination long after the show ends.