Lincoln Center Festival can always be counted on to inject some class into the soporific summer theater season by hosting avant-garde work by celebrated international companies. This year’s visitors include Japan’s Ninagawa Company, which returns this year with a startling stage version of Haruki Murakami’s surreal novel, “Kafka on the Shore.” As visualized by company director Yukio Ninagawa, this metaphysical fable follows the parallel quests of a young boy in search of his mother and an old man looking for a lost cat, and features talking cats, fearsome villains, and stunning stagecraft. (Next: Singapore and Seoul.)
At three solid hours, the show loses considerable magic by cramming in too many non-visual details from the novel’s mythic storyline about a 15-year-old boy named Kafka Tamura (Nino Furuhata), who runs away from home to escape an Oedipal prophecy that predicts him mating with his missing mother. Kafka (the literary name he has chosen for himself) is a vital character in the novel, in part because he narrates his own story, but in this less intimate theatrical context he’s more of a soft, bland presence.
In the town of Takamatsu, the wandering boy is granted refuge in a private library run by the elegant but haunted Miss Saeki (Rie Miyazawa). Here, he meets Oshima (Naohito Fujiki), a transgender librarian who becomes his confidant and with whom he shares his existential thoughts. For obvious reasons, these talky scenes also lose their intellectual zest on stage.
Frank Galati, a versatile company member of Steppenwolf, has had unqualified success, however, in adapting a parallel plot from the novel about Nakata (Katsumi Kiba, in a wonderfully disarming performance), a meek old man from Hiroshima who lost some of his faculties in the war. But this endearing fellow gained the infinitely more valuable ability to communicate with cats, and now makes a modest living hunting lost cats.
And yes, we do meet human-sized versions of the cats Nakata encounters while searching for a lost tortoiseshell named Goma, among them Otsuka (Yukio Tsukamoto), a helpful black tomcat, and lovely Mimi (Katrine Mutsukiko Doi Vincent), a graceful Siamese beauty. (The animal costumes by Ayako Maeda are fantastic.)
Unhappy man, Nakata also meets the infamous cat-killer, the iconic Johnnie Walker (a very scary Masato Shinkawa in black boots and top hat), who collects the heads of his little victims after killing them with atrocious skill — skills as graphically displayed as Murakami describes them in his novel — and gathering up their souls for his own cruel and selfish use.
Meanwhile, young Kafka meets another advertising icon on his travels — Col. Sanders (Masakatsu Toriyama) — a jolly-looking fellow who turns out to be a pimp. Honestly, the meaning of Murakami’s symbolism is as baffling here as it is in the novel.
The sense of enchantment that defines Murakami’s whimsical story comes across best in the amazing design work under the masterful helming of the company director. Making full use of the vast stage, set designer Tsukasa Nakagoshi fills the space with Plexiglas cubes that glide on and off the stage containing scene settings and the characters who figure in them.
Some are intimate settings, like the quiet library where Kafka takes refuge and the laboratory where the sadistic Johnnie Walker forces Nakata to watch his acts of torture. But there’s also a bus, a truck, various truck stops and a brothel to help us follow the separate odysseys of the young boy and the old cat whisperer. There are even bucolic dioramas of the deep woods that the travelers must navigate on their existential journeys.
Motoi Hattori’s feverish fluorescent lighting, Katsuji Takahashi’s alarmingly metallic soundscape, and the discordant music by Umitaro Abe all contribute to the hypnotic nature of the piece. But neither light nor sound can fully penetrate the deep, dark landscape of Murakami’s mind.