Monday, May 20, 2019



By John K. Gillespie (guest reviewer)

From time to time Theatre's Leiter Side will be posting reviews of Off-Off Broadway shows my schedule prevents me from seeing. If you are interested in reviewing Off-Off Broadway, please contact me so we can discuss. I hope you find the expanded coverage useful. Sam Leiter
Kazuma Takeo, Takuro Takasaki. Photo: Richard Termine.
Yu Murai, who can stake a claim to being among Japan’s most innovative playwrights and directors today, has his own take on Japan’s century-plus tradition of staging/adapting Shakespeare. On his first foray into the U.S., the 2009 New York International Fringe Festival, he staged his hilarious Romeo and Toilet, and was awarded Four Stars by Time Out New York, citing the “fantastic combination of ingenious movement, surreal story lines and dynamic, startlingly disciplined performers.”
Kazuma Takeo, Takuro Takasaki, G.K. Masayuki. Photo: Richard Termine.
 That pithy description could also apply to his most recent Shakespeare adaptation, Ashita no Ma-Joe: Rocky Macbeth, which just finished a brief visit to the Japan Society. Its title draws on the wildly popular manga and subsequent animé Ashita no Joe in the late 1960s and early 70s, and particularly on Shakespeare’s witches (majo means “witch” in Japanese), not to mention the notion of “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” as ominously rendered with the title word ashita (Japanese for “tomorrow”).
: G.K. Masayuki, Takuro Takasaki. Photo: Richard Termine.
The original manga is the soapy tale of a confused youth, an orphan and ex-con, whose itinerary through life, challenging at every turn, leads him to become a professional boxer and to covet a championship belt, all of which is conflated with the rise and sordid downfall of the upwardly manipulated Macbeth; it’s unquestionably a rocky path for both boxer and Macbeth, with a not-so-faint shadow of Sly Stallone’s Rocky.
Takuro Takasaki, Kazuma Takeo. Photo: Richard Termine.
 Murai established his company, Kaimaku Pennant Race (KPR), in 2006, its name channeling both the opening of the baseball season and the curtain for a play. Tokyo-based KPR has become known in Japan for tongue-in-cheek, absurdist adaptations of Western masterpieces, featuring dialogue brimming with puns and word play and calling attention to universal aspects of human endeavor and to salient issues in Japanese popular culture, especially in manga, animé, and video games. Murai’s stage action is stylized, completely disciplined, with abundant humor and site gags. The stage for Romeo and Toilet, for example, was adorned with 10,000 rolls of toilet paper.
Kazuma Takeo, G.K. Masayuki, Takuro Takasaki. Photo: Richard Termine.
Murai first staged Ashita no Ma-Joe: Rocky Macbeth in Tokyo in 2017 at Shimokitazawa’s Honda Gekijō, iconic mecca for experimental theatre. The performance  at the Japan Society opened on what looked to be a traditional boxing ring, in the middle of which was a miniature boxing ring, its floor a mat of rubbery material. Everything was white, including the three actors, all dressed in white spandex bodysuits, facilitating the blindingly rapid changes from one character to the next, including Macbeth, Witches, Lady Macbeth, Banquo, Ghost of Banquo, Malcolm, Macduff, and others.
Takuro Takasaki, G.K. Masayuki, Kazuma Takeo. Photo: Richard Termine.
The action opens with Joe lamenting his hardscrabble life and Macbeth his own life in frigid, filthy, remote Scotland. Suddenly, Macbeth encounters the witches, who are ensconced under the ring-within-the-ring mat, punctuating their lines with their heads successively popping up against the rubbery mat, as though in a game of whack-a-mole. The ineluctable augury of this stark opening scene hits the spectator full force, vividly adumbrating the projected rise and fall from grace.
Murai’s stage action is quick and snappy, the full play lasting only about one hour. Primarily with the witches, then the other characters, narrating but also commenting on the actions that they themselves are undertaking, the story of the boxer’s and Macbeth’s ups and downs is conveyed in a kind of frame tale, one scene seamlessly linked to the next. It also becomes apparent that the smaller ring-within-the ring with the rubbery mat—a frame within a frame—features each scene as a mini-play-within-the-play.

That realization is woven into the action by several techniques, including the witches’ rapid wordplay melding together “mat,” “mad,” “man,” even “Macbeth.” All those words are uttered in English, not translated. The witches pronounce the pithy conclusion, “we are the mat,” confirming that it not only serves as the backbone of the frame-tale and play-within-the-play structure, it actually functions as a character in the play. It’s an ingenious meta-technique that, by the second or third scene, has us fully within the play’s grip.

Murai follows the ill-fated itineraries of the manga-boxer—would-be champion Joe and would-be king Macbeth—juxtaposing them, linking them, and punctuating the action throughout with wordplay and other laughter-inducing devices. For example, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth at one point early on wonder aloud if they are “punch-drunk” for not seeing what is in front of them. Then the sound of the morning bell that Macbeth hears is conflated with the gong of a boxing knockout, and King Duncan’s murder by knife is described, in boxing terms, as “a jab attack.”
Kazuma Takeo, Takuro Takasaki. Photo: Richard Termine.
After the deed is done, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth discuss breaking bread together: “Let’s eat Le Pain Quotidien,” which modulates to “Panquo” (the Japanese word for bread is pan) then “Banquo.” And their bloodthirsty drive is magnified by a brief sumo-inspired sketch, which struck me as reminiscent of the humorous kyōgen interlude between the seriousness of two plays.
 It involves Chiyonofuji, a yokozuna (Grand Champion, sumo’s highest rank), known as “the Wolf” (which recalls  Wolf Kanagushi in Ashita no Joe, a renowned boxer whom Joe thrashes on his way to the top) for his attacking style, and his superb contemporary Kitanoumi. Both are bent on becoming Grand Champions. Kitanoumi, reflecting Macbeth’s self-doubts about his murderous actions on the way to becoming king, wonders aloud whether he is good enough to be promoted.
Then, midway through, two characters don hardhats for a tête-à-tête and are pelleted with crushed rocks during their conversation. The two are probably Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, but their lines come so fast and furious that others’ comments may also be included.
The nonstop falling rocks, of course, symbolize the world crumbling around boxer Joe and the sociopathic, would-be monarchs. Moreover, the stones are now all over a good part of the boxing-ring stage, making it amazingly challenging, even painful, simply to walk (the actors were all barefoot), re-enforcing the inexorably deteriorating universe of the principal characters.
But there are humorous moments throughout, as, for example, the appearance of a traveling T-shirt salesman at the concluding banquet where Macbeth alone sees the ghost of Banquo. In fact, when the salesman with his oily PR hype comments on the fine touch of the T-shirts’ artistic illustration, Macbeth sees it as “looking exactly like the ghost of Banquo.” This, truly, is a perilous game of thrones.
The play’s ending is ambiguous, as it was for the ending of Ashita no Joe, who, in his title bout against champion José Mendoza, refuses to lose and gets beaten to a pulp. Is he dead? Yes or no, that controversy continues all these years later. And Macbeth? In Scotland, he says, “I could not find a corner of my own. I am a man who was once called Macbeth. Who . . . am I?” So we are not certain that either Tomorrow’s Joe or Rocky Macbeth is dead. Take your pick.
The play is meant as entertainment, but, at the same time, it makes use of popular culture that is deeply ingrained in the Japanese psyche, calling attention to the sort of striving that impels those like Joe and Macbeth to betray the highest human values. Moreover, Murai has put the two familiar stories together in a fascinating way to give us by the very comparison, new insight that a serious consideration of only one of the tales might well ignore.
Murai’s three actors, Takuro Takasaki, G.K. Masayuki, and Kazuma Takeo, are quite adept at the quicksilver action and, apart from some deafening declamation (reminiscent of the early angura [underground] theatre movement of the 60s and 70s), in full keeping with Murai’s favored approach to stage action. Finally, video designer Kazuki Watanabe provides excellent special effects.
Yu Murai is a playwright and director to keep an eye on. He has been widely recognized in Japan for his work, receiving the Encouragement Award at the Toga Theatre Competition (granted by the Japan Performing Arts Foundation (2013); the Setagaya-ku Arts award in the Performing Arts category (2014); and the Director Award at the 7th Sengawa Theatre Competition (2016).
Ashita no Ma-Joe: Rocky Macbeth
Japan Society
333 E. 47th St., NYC
Five performance run already closed

John K. Gillespie, who holds a PhD from Columbia University, is an internationally respected scholar and translator of modern Japanese drama.