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A production of Complicite and Setagaya Public Theater, Radar LA Festival 2013
Based on the writings of Jun’ichiro Tanizaki  [A Portrait of Shun-kin] —

“…perhaps we may be allowed at least one mansion where we can turn off the electric lights and see what it is like without them.” —  In Praise of Shadows by Jun’ichiro Tanizaki

The totally darkened stage is  the heart of theater, with the audience stilled, as though in a womb or a closet, in silence, breathing, waiting. The rest is what you must hear because you can’t suffer silence, what you must see because you cannot bear to remain in the dark.  In the formal training of a masochist,  the darkened closet and the blindfold are essential. Darkness is the ground of illumination or the stage of the politics of domination.

A Portrait of  Shun-kin, a tale of cruelty and liberating devotion by Jun’ichiro Tanizaki, is the inspiration for this multi-layered production by Complicite and Setagaya Public Theatre under the direction of Simon McBurney.  Through the interweaving frames of constructed narrators whose own stories cross-pollinate with the main story, using puppetry, music and  movement, a purposefully unreliable and subjective history plays out in which many of the facts are intentionally untrustworthy, specular or obfuscated. This aspect of the production is grounded in Tanizaki’s own modernist story technique, using a narrator who quotes extensively from a biography written in third person by Shun-kin’s servant/lover, Sasuke.  In his “postscript” on A Portrait of Shun-kin, after holding forth at length on the various narrative strategies of his contemporaries, Tanizaki gives us a taste of his archness:

“To the criticism that I have not written about the psychology of Shunkin and Sasuke, I should like to respond with a question: what need is there to describe their psychology? Is it not clear from what I have written? I have used the title ‘Postscript to “A Portrait of Shunkin”’ but have not had time to deal with the subject after all. If you have been kind enough to read my opinion this far, then I shall trust the rest to your discernment.” — Junichiro Taniziki in Monumenta Nipponica, xxxv, 4

McBurney plunges headlong into the emotional and psychological thicket of Shun-kin’s story, with good instincts theatrically even though the juxtaposed narrative additions can be too glib. The first set of scenes are angular and spare: an elderly interlocutor shuffles onstage, speaking to the audience in thickly accented English: Tanizaki himself played by Kentaro Mizuki, in the only piece of this production that is done in English. The stage goes dark, and  a piercing shard of light illuminates a backstage hallway dressed as a subway arcade of fluorescent lit vending machines, echoing with the hollow clamor of a modern city. From the light emerges a middle-aged Japanese female radio actress (Ryoko Tateishi) who’s been hired to read the part of narrator in a radio version of the story. We later discover that the actress is involved in a twitter-worthy romance with a much younger man, told entirely via cell-phone conversation during her work breaks from the story-telling. The story of Shun-kin that parallels her own seems to enliven and reinvigorate her lust for this lover, but her own banal life story dropped onto the stage never rings true tonally.

“The female puppets consist only of a head and a pair of hands. The body, legs and feet are concealed within a long kimono, and so the operators need only work their hands within the costume to suggest movements.”— from In Praise of Shadows by Jun’ichiro Tanizaki

The Meiji era drama that comprises the central action of Shun-kin revolves around an extraordinary duo who represent the protagonist: Eri Fukatsu and the puppet she manipulates: Shun-kin, a child prodigy blinded at an early age under dubious circumstances. (One story is that she was assaulted by the jealous servant of one of Shun-kin’s sisters.) The puppet is an exquisite white porcelain figure at once disembodied and re-embodied through the sensitive manipulations of Fukatsu, and animated by her astonishingly shrill yet expressive voice that gives full throat to the distress, the suffering and the cruelty of Shun-kin. Her Shun-kin  possesses no shred of human kindness, and is utterly proud, self-centered, and spoiled—and in pain.

The little girl prodigy, her blindness indicated by a wrap wound around her eyes, takes up the study of the shamisen, a Japanese lute, and quickly masters the art. When Shun-kin is about 9 years old a servant boy comes to the household: Sasuke, only 13 years old himself, the son of a working class family. He falls under Shun-kin’s spell and quickly becomes her favorite servant, caring for her most intimate needs. As she becomes more accomplished on the samisen he develops a wish to learn the instrument too, studies it in secret, and finally is discovered. He is then allowed to attend classes with her at the music master’s, but ultimately Shun-kin takes over his musical education, and it provides her new opportunities for ever harsher treatment of the boy. (Tanizaki seems to be using his protagonist to parody a longstanding tradition of harsh discipline in the study of music, among other arts.) As the two children mature, their relationship becomes more intense, and finally it becomes clear that Shun-kin is pregnant. Neither of them will admit the truth, Shun-kin particularly refusing to implicate Sasuke, and ever more firmly refusing to marry him, or anyone else for that matter. In a striking visualization the birth of their child is played out as calamitous for the little puppet, whose limbs are disarranged grievously by the process. Afterwards, Shun-kin refuses to show any motherly instincts, but coldly orders the baby taken away for adoption.

The second phase of the relationship  unfolds as the adult couple (mistress/servant or teacher/student) move into their own household in the Yodoyabashi area of Osaka and take in music students for extra income—hardly necessary since Shun-kin has a generous allowance from her family. Shun-kin has grown ever more beautiful and imperious, and still gives no emotional ground to the long suffering Sasuke, who for his part has become an accomplished musician—in Tanizaki’s story he is portrayed as a virtuoso who is as accomplished as Shun-kin. There is a harrowing encounter with one of her music students, Ritaro who gets Sasuke drunk, and tries to force himself on Shun-kin. Ritaro fails, and the whole incident plays out with his defeat and humiliation when Shun-kin slashes him with a plectrum (the large pick used to play the samisen). Sometime later, Shun-kin endures her second great disaster, when an unknown assailant dashes a teapot of scalding water over her face, disfiguring her. In a response to this horror, Sasuke blinds himself with sewing needles, to spare his mistress the further humiliation of being seen in her mutilated condition by her most intimate companion, and most significantly, to convince her of his devotion. Her reaction is the first and only kindness she shows in the entire spectacle of shame and cruelty that has characterized their relationship: she is grateful and expresses it in a simple loving way.

There are superficial similarities in the Shun-kin story to a Thomas Hardy short story, called Barbara in the House of Grebe. Director McBurney claims that it “gave Tanizaki the idea” for his story. It’s true that Tanizaki had translated this story into Japanese and some believe it is a source of inspiration. The only similarity is disfigurement by burning, but there is little else in this gothic melodrama of ham-fisted morality that reaches the level of Tanizaki’s work which is stylistically and emotionally far more complex. Obviously Simon McBurney was more than a little interested in Tanizaki’s familiarity with Psychopathia Sexualis (1886) by Richard von Krafft-Ebing. According to Tanizaki’s autobiographical fiction, ‘Jotaro,’  the author discovers that his natural proclivity for masochism is widely shared after reading this and other western literature—although it was hardly necessary to draw on western sources for sensual treatment of gore and violence. Woodblock prints from the late Edo period, known as muzan-e, didn’t hold back.Tanizaki also immersed himself in Gothic horror, romantic, and modernist (western) fiction, which all inform the extremes of human behavior explored in Shun-kin. However the one important influence which McBurney seems to ignore in his staging of this story is the Buddhism so central to Japanese culture.

Here is a passage from Tanizaki’s History of Shun-kin“Ah, [Sasuke] thought, this is the world my teacher lives in—at last I have reached it!…It was Shun-kin’s exquisite white face…that hovered before him in a circle of dim light, like the radiant halo of the Buddha.” 

The final paragraph of the story reads: “It seems that when the priest Gazen of the Tenryu temple heard the story [of Sasuke’s blinding himself] he praised him for the Zen spirit with which he changed his whole life in an instant, turning the ugly into the beautiful, and said that it was very nearly the act of a saint. I wonder how many would agree with him.”

McBurney’s final scene in the production is the exit of the radio actress from the sound studio, the bathos of her patter with her young lover a jarring counterpoint to a sublime act of self mutilation that seals the lovers’ fate. This production of Tanizaki’s work represents an expansive vision of lush surfaces, bouncing through time from the Meiji era to pre-war Japan, when most of Tanizaki’s story takes place, to contemporary Japan, which operates under aesthetics more dominated by Manga, Murakami and Harajuku. The samisen music score (by Honjo Hidetaro), the visually sophisticated sets (designed by Merle Hensel and Rumi Matsui) and the Setagaya company’s flawless performances make for an elegant spectacle, but to ignore the more metaphysical aspects of the story is doing a disservice to Tanizaki’s ambiguous storytelling.

In his reading of the Shun-kin story McBurney is certainly on solid ground with Tanizaki scholarship in labeling  the relationship between Shun-kin and Sasuke sadomasochistic; but Tanizaki himself never frames their lives in terms of any sort of sexual norm or deviance, for it is more eccentric and riddled with complex currents of suffering and trauma—and perhaps most importantly devotion—an alien concept to many westerners. Sasuke’s genuine devotion to his mistress ultimately transcends the typical masochistic relationship, which is more about role playing, egocentrism and lust than the utter abjection of ego that Sasuke willingly undergoes to realize a state of transcendence. For Tanizaki, lust itself is not so simple. Nor would it be really safe to affirm that this is a story of devotion without considering the idea that Tanizaki could very well be writing a subtle parody of the Japanese concept of devotion, for it is a typical masochist strategy to relate their venereal urges to what they see in the ecstacies of religious mortification. Shun-kin may have the hard and indomitable nature that McBurney, and Tanizaki no doubt, read as an ideal dominatrix. But Tanizaki— seen through his literary oeuvre as polymorphously perverse and endlessly amused by subtle sexual vicissitudes–has a far more nuanced take on her, and through the character Sasuke, makes evident his compassion for this frankly unlikable character, who is in fact embittered and terrorized by trauma of a terrible horror perpetrated on her either by nature or by human viciousness at a young age, and asserting herself into a role that masks her insecurity and self loathing, encouraged by a willing accomplice/victim in Sasuke. The fascinating charm of Shun-kin is that she is a beautiful, cruel and unyielding mistress, who seems outwardly to hold Sasuke in the utmost contempt.

This superficial labeling of the relationship as “masochistic”  color the entire proceedings melodramatic and borderline kitsch. In one scene, Sasuke, who has been suffering terribly from a toothache, is called to massage his mistress’ feet. He does so without complaining, but then, unable to bear his suffering any longer, he uses her cool foot to soothe his hot and swollen jaw. On stage, Shun-kin punishes Sasuke by kicking him repeatedly in a lyrically choreographed, stylized violent scene which is meant to illustrate Shun-kin’s sadistic treatment her the young male music students. In the scene as Tanizaki wrote it, Shun-kin kicks Sasuke away—rather than actually beating him—as a reaction of irritation and frustration. We are left with the question, is it the cruelty of a spoiled narcissist or the lust of a sadist? She has known full well that Sasuke was suffering from the toothache and tried to conceal it from her. His act of concealment, of which, as sighted people we would think little, is a grievous insult and source of humiliation to the blind Shun-kin, who is deeply sensitive to how others might take advantage of her disability. As for his timidity or cowardice, not daring to tell her about his condition, she sees it as Sasuke’s way of manipulating her into torturing him, which only exacerbates the self-loathing which she masks with exceeding pride.


“…darkness causes us no discontent, we resign ourselves to it as inevitable. If light is scarce then light is scarce, we will immerse ourselves in the darkness and there discover its own particular beauty. But the progressive Westerner is determined to better his lot. From candle to oil lamp, oil lamp to gaslight, gaslight to electric light—his quest for a brighter light never ceases, he spares no pains to eradicate even the minutest shadow.” — from In Praise of Shadows by Jun’ichiro Tanizaki

Tanizaki’s History of Shun-kin leaves many facts for us to speculate, implies far more than it states, and hides its most wrenching truths behind screen after screen of subjective opacity, which can be accomplished on stage only by selectively choosing what makes for “good” theater and then realizing  intelligently some version of the original guided by these choices. The Makioka Sisters, a sumptuous and stately art film by Kon Ichikawa based on a Tanizaki novel, also downplayed or ignored the central themes and images, the decline and privation of the WW2 years and how it affected Japanese bourgeoisie, in favor of a vision that would be more palatable to the booming Japan of the early 1980’s. It seems that there is a similar approach in this well-financed, well performed, and sleek production, which succeeds in finding a reading of Tanizaki that gives the audience its money’s worth, but doesn’t serve its nuanced literary source as well.


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