Honor and revenge in the samurai code culminating in a stunning mass suicide: in the aftermath of that bloody night in 1703, the facts of the actual 47 ronin incident became clouded by creative conjecture. Bunraku, Kabuki, and Noh theatre offered their own versions, collectively called the Chushingura. This collection of fictional interpretations leading up to the actual event when 47 leaderless samurai unite to avenge their master’s betrayal has enthralled Japanese audiences for centuries.
The fascination continues today, in Japan and abroad. A film based on the 47 ronin, starring Keanu Reeves, will be released later this year, while Maurice Béjart, French choreographer and frequent collaborator with The Tokyo Ballet, offered his own interpretation with The Kabuki, his 1986 full length ballet. Invited to perform at Palais Garnier, Tokyo Ballet presents one of Béjart’s most beautifully enigmatic works to a sold-out audience in Paris next week.
In the creative hands of Béjart, Chushingura assumes metaphysical complications, to be expected from a philosopher’s son. Although the ballet looks like a narrative piece, audiences should not expect a straightforward account of revenge. Béjart was more concerned with the layers of time, unfolding like the delicate sleeve of a draped kimono. With a little explanation, his vision unfolds as a stoically beautiful portrayal of philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s ‘eternal recurrence’.
The curtain opens on the techno-squeal of knife blades slicing across a Tokyo street. A surreal city scene encompasses all that evokes modern Japan – from flat-screened televisions to baseball swings – breakdancing and hip hop slide alongside the steps of one central modern Tokyo-ite, the leader of a group of young men, Yuranosuke.
When Yuranosuke finds an ancient Japanese sword, the strains of the shamisen, the echoes of traditional narrative chants (gidayu) waft across the stage and modernity dissolves through the flimsy fabric of time, heading back to the Edo Period and the 47 ronin.
Béjart’s The Kabuki unfolds as Morono, the governor of Kamakura and a high ranking official to the Shogun makes advances towards Lady Kaoyo, the wife of Enya Hangan, while many samurai are gathered to honor the Shogun’s brother, Ashikaga Tadayoshi as he returns to the city bearing a helmut used successfully in battle. Hangan has been charged with entertaining Tadayoshi, but the insults of Morono against his wife drives him to violence. Drawing a weapon against a high official (Morono) during an official visit shows disrespect to the Shogun, and Hangan is commanded to commit suicide.
With Hangan’s death, all the samurai under him become ronin. Ronin literally means the man who is the ocean wave, signifying the ronin’s unstable place, adrift from society. 47 of Hangan’s retainers join together, determined to gain revenge for their master’s seppuku. The story of Kampei and Okaru plays out, two young lovers caught in the wave of betrayed loyalties and lost honor. After the 47 ronin successfully achieve vengeance with the murder of Morono, they commit ritual, mass suicide – accepting the inevitable, acknowledging the triumph of their retribution.
For Béjart, the art form of kabuki itself is a time portal, culture that straddles the divide of five hundred years. Béjart deliberately mixes elements of this traditional art form that started in the seething societal change of the Tokugawa shogunate. Within the ballet, kabuki music, movements, and chants weave throughout various narratives in the sprawling stories of the Chushingura.
While The Kabuki play alone is over 10 hours long, the ballet tips in at just two. Although much of it takes place in the past recounting the events leading up to the mass suicide, modern time flows back on stage repeatedly through various modern characters, reminding the audience that all will be repeated in eternal return. Nietzsche’s philosophy also surfaces in amor fati, or ‘love of one’s fate’ as the entire ballet celebrates the inevitability of events. Béjart himself said of the production: “We are all ronins, orphans of time.”
Béjart captures the essence of Japanese aesthetics and cleverly connects his themes of eternal return and amor fati by using a well-known Japanese Buddhist poem, the Iroha uta, as a backdrop on stage. The poem, dated from the late Heian period, is a perfect pangram, containing each character of the Japanese syllabary exactly once: thus, 47 syllables. Typically used in Japanese schoolbooks as a memory device for hiragana, the poem and its ideas on time unite ancient Japan with the present day, the 47 ronin with every man.
There are many and varied translations out there, but here is a simple one, courtesy of Wikipedia:
Even the blossoming flowers will eventually scatter. Who in our world is unchanging? The deep mountains of vanity –we cross them today and we shall not see superficial dreams nor be deluded.
To fully enjoy Béjart’s ballet, abandon expectations of traditional Western narrative. Don’t let yourself be frustrated by seemingly unrelated diversions. Each scene acts as a vignette of time, a single moment encapsulating some essence of humanity. Like an etegami painting or a haiku, the unexplained incompleteness is part of the beauty. Exalt in the now on stage: the gorgeously dripping kimono and elegance of Lady Kaoyo; Béjart’s tribute to the pleasure districts of Gion, the floating world of ukiyo in the Edo period; the brash exuberance of Morono’s spy, Bannai; the final expression of love for his fate in a beautifully choreographed solo by Yuranosuke.
Go if: You appreciate abstract merged with narrative or respect Japanese aesthetics of beauty, time, and gorgeous kimono.
Skip if: “Beige Art” turns your traditionalist’s stomach.
See also: Kris’s previous feature on Béjart.
The Tokyo Ballet performs Béjart’s Kabuki at the Palais Garnier from 18 to 22 May 2012. For further information & booking visit the Paris Opera’s official website.
About the Author:
Kris writes from Hokkaido, Japan where she recently moved after 15 years on the main island, mostly in the small town of Kamakura. She writes frequently for Japan Times, and teaches Japanese history and literature at an international school.