Wednesday, March 26, 2014

CineMatsuri: 髑髏城の七人 (Seven Souls in Skull Castle, 2013)

I decided to write something on this because there was almost NO INFORMATION on this play or movie available in English.

Everything I know about kabuki (歌舞伎) comes from watching Japanese television: namely that it’s a stylized type of theater in which all the stories are about samurai times, all the roles are played by men, and all the actors wear white face paint. I assumed it was an art stuck in the past and patronized by a small, specialized, elite audience like opera is here in the West, a beautiful art but no longer relevant to the mainstream. And the fact that the overwhelming amount of information on kabuki available in English appears to have been written by pedantic PhD students holed up in some midwestern university library study carrel meant that I had no motivation to learn more. If kabuki is something only put on for elites, Western lookie-loos, and academics, why should I care?

But when I got the e-mail announcing the line up of CineMatsuri the film that really called out to me was not really a movie but a kabuki play put on film: Seven Souls in the Skull Castle (髑髏城の七人).

Punchline spouting heroes, vamping villains, plucky heroines, swords, and a badass score… this was kabuki?! I was sold.

Seven Souls in the Skull Castle (2013) lived up the trailer and then some. The historical context of the story was lost on me but the plot was delicious. The death of a warlord leaves behind a power vacuum which the demonic warlord-wannabe Tenmao (Moriyama Mirai) is attempting to fill. Standing in his way are a small frontier town run by an ice cold brothel madam (Koike Eiko) and her world-weary benefactor Ranbei (Saotome Taichi), a pack of scrappy bandits led by “No Draw” Hyugo (Katsuji Ryo), a wandering samurai (Oguri Shun) who calls himself “Sutenosuke” (loosely translates to “thrown away my cares”), and one tiny kitchen girl (Naka Riisa).

There’s conniving and plotting, comedy, melodrama, a tiny bit of romance, and a heck of a lot of action.

I deeply enjoyed Seven Souls but, that said, I am willing to deeply suspend my disbelief. Watching a stage play on film is neither like being at play nor is it like watching a film. We don’t have the buzz of the “live” house, breathing the same air as the actors, knowing at any moment they could do anything, but we also don’t have the faux-reality of the feature film. When a peasant’s hands get chopped off in the first few minutes of the Seven Souls, quite a few people in my screening giggled at the obviously fake blood that squirted out. It’s theater not film but it’s on film and it can be hard to let go of the idea that film is “reality.”

Unlike us, the Japanese seem to be used to the idea of the stage play on film thanks to their wonderful habit of releasing stage plays on DVD. But Seven Souls is part of a series called ゲキ X シネ (Theater X Cinema) from the Gekidan Shinkansen theater troupe (劇団☆新感線) that went beyond DVD, right into movie theaters. And the difference the scale makes is incredible. Seven Souls is filmed and edited very similarly to other Japanese stage play DVDs I’ve seen where the camera seems to flit seamlessly from a wide audience perspective to being on stage in the actors’ faces but having those faces be huge on the cinema screen made everything more intense, more immediate than it would be on my television at home. We could really see the beads of sweat, leg hair, costume details in a way that would have been impossible even from the front row of the theater where it had been filmed. The scale of the movie screen added a completely new and totally unexpected dimension to the experience.

And then there was the play itself. The story, the actors, everything. Seven Souls isn’t traditional kabuki but “Inoue Kabuki,” a style named after Gekidan Shinkansen playwright and director Inoue Hidenori. As far as I can tell, “Inoue Kabuki” still uses traditional settings and themes but uses modern acting and includes roles for ladies, who get to use swords and guns just like the men. One thing I haven't seen mentioned in any of the English language material is that the production of Seven Souls filmed for the movie was substantially reworked from the original version. In the original version, the wandering samurai Sutenosuke and demonic Tenmao are played by the same actor (most famously Furata Arata from 13 Assassins) and the second act is given a completely different flavor because of that.

While I enjoyed all of the leads--swaggering Oguri Shun, glamorous Koike Eiko, spunky Naka Riisa, creepy Morimoto Mirai--the two standouts for me were young Saotome Taichi as Ranbei and Katsuji Ryo as Hyugo. Young Saotome (only 19 when they filmed Seven Souls, I believe) is apparently well known for his onnagata or women’s roleplay and he brought all of that feminine grace to world weary Ranbei, whose depression fuels his self-destruction in tragic ways. Ranbei is ghost-like when we first see him. But his quiet voice and inward posture are masking (perhaps sexual) frustration and rage. It was a wonderful, nuanced performance from Saotome and was enough to have me scouring the Internet for whatever else he’s done and will be doing. (That would be Crows Explode on April 14th. I’m in.)

Katsuji Ryo, who will coincidentally also be in Crows Explode, had the difficult task as Hyugo of being a light character but not so light that we can’t take him seriously. Hyugo is a hick, uneducated. He mispeaks a lot and has an overinflated sense of his own importance and in the hands of another actor he could easily have been just a clown but Katsuji keeps Hyugo empathetic and very human. One particular scene in the second half, involving Hygo stumbling across the slaughtered bodies of his one-time friends, had me sobbing quietly into my handkerchief.

I say I was moved to tears but a couple behind was bored enough to walk out halfway through. And the audience was never united in our emotional reactions the way good audiences will be, which makes me wonder how engaged people were with Seven Souls and who the audience here in the West would be for Inoue Kabuki. Would it be too strange and foreign for theater fans? Too mainstream and modern for the academics? Too stagey and boring for martial arts film fans?

Only time will tell. I really liked Seven Souls and I hope you all have the chance to see it--or another Japanese stage play DVD--at some point. Unfortunately, there is NOTHING available with English subtitles and DVDs themselves can run you over $100. But the film version of Seven Souls that I saw does have English subtitles and it will be showing in San Francisco in April during the Samurai Geisha Festival, if that’s your thing.

If you can’t get to San Fran, then, well, here’s hoping for at least an English subtitled DVD release.

(And I’ll be keeping my eyes peeled for more information on this Inoue Kabuki genre.)

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