Thursday, July 27, 2017

NOBUNAGA ( 信長 ) : The Will to Power, Moon Troupe, 2016

Ryu Masaki’s final production before stepping down as Top Star of Moon Troupe was Nobunaga: The Will to Power/Forever Love (using the usual Takarazuka format of first act drama, second act revue).  I was lucky enough to see two performances in Tokyo just about a year ago and it’s taken almost that full year to understand what the hell was happening on stage.

(Those completely unfamiliar with the Takarazuka theater troupe may also want to read my introduction piece written after I first saw Takarazuka in 2015.)

My Japanese listening comprehension has improved greatly over the years but my vocabulary is heavy in words one hears on television variety shows and that doesn’t include much in the way of specifics on the Sengoku era (mid-15th through early 17th century). And live in the theater I swiftly lost the plot amid archaic place names and polite signifiers of status. But Nobunaga was billed as a rock musical and that is something I understand intimately. The rock music--as well as the spectacular costuming and choreography and performances--were more than enough to leave me satisfied and planning on ordering the DVD when it was released.

Still my lack of comprehension gnawed at me. I am a librarian after all.

But even viewing the DVD with the ability to pause and repeat led me to no more answers than I had walking out of the theater last August.

What the hell was happening on that stage?

This was going to take some actual research in Sengoku era Japan and the historical figure of Oda Nobunaga. And so I took to the books… and to my dictionary along with a copy of the Takarazuka speciality magazine Le Cinq that featured the complete script for Nobunaga. I would understand this play if I had to look up archaic terms like 南蛮人 (nanbanjin, the word used to describe the Portuguese traders who arrived in Japan in the mid-16th century) a billion times.

(Ryu Masaki as the young Nobunaga about to carry out some Sengoku justice on Imagawa)

The plot of Nobunaga, as I came to understand it, goes something like this. We open with the Battle of Okehazama where Oda Nobunaga (Ryu Masaki), the lord of small Owari province, is about to destroy the wealthier and more powerful Imagawa Yoshimoto (Kozuki Ruu) and his troops. It’s kill or be killed in Sengoku-era Japan.

(Nobunaga sees the light. The path to power awaits!)

(The loyal Oda troops led by Hideyoshi, played by Miya Rurika in the center in purple.)

After the battle, which ends in the death of Yoshimoto, Nobunaga has two visitors. Akechi Mitsuhide (Nagina Ruumi) and Kakukei (later Ashikaga Yoshiaki, played by Saou Kurama). Mitsuhide had been in the service of Kichou’s--Nobunaga’s wife (Manaki Reika)--father, Saito Dosan, the lord of Mino. But Mitsuhide has sad news, the lord has been killed in a coup and Mitsuhide is now in the service of Kakukei, the younger brother of the recently deposed (and killed) Shogun. They’ve come to offer Nobunaga with a request: join with the Azai clan to pacify Mino, then march on Miyako (modern-day Kyoto) and install Kakukei back into the Shogunate.

(Sao Kurama as the would-be Shogun with a skeptical Hideyoshi to the right)

(Poor, doomed O-ichi...)

This would give Nobunaga massive influence over the Shogun but there are two catches. 1) Nobunaga will have to marry his younger sister O-ichi (Umino Mitsuki) to Azai Nagamasa (Uzuki Hayate) and 2) Kichou doesn’t want Nobunaga to destroy Mino, her childhood home, even though it has been taken over by enemy forces.

But the path to power beckons.

O-ichi is married; Mino destroyed.

(An enthusiastic Father Organtino serenades a bored Roltes.)

Ten years later a boat carrying an Italian knight named Giovanni Roltes (Tamaki Ryou) and an (adorable) Italian missionary named Father Organtino Gnecchi-Soldo (Chinami Karan). Father Organtino is a true believer but Roltes seems uninterested in spreading the gospel and much more interested in the tales of war and destruction surrounding Oda Nobunaga, the Christians’ patron and protector in Japan.

(Nobunaga making a mockery of the peace talks by arriving on an elephant.)

Organtino and Roltes happen to arrive right in the middle of the Mount Hiei peace talks between the now-Shogun Yoshiaki and the alliance of Azai and Oda forces. Mount Hiei is home to a famous monastery but in the Sengoku era monasteries held political and military power, with abbotts acting as defacto lords over their territory. Nobunaga--who arrives to the peace talks on a massive elephant--is intent on crushing that threat. The Shogun is intent on stopping him. Yoshiaki has worked out a deal on behalf of the monks of Mount Hiei for Azai and Oda to retreat and give up the attack. But Nobunaga doesn’t like to back down. Charmed by Roltes, he quizzes the knight on what he would do in Nobunaga’s situation. “Block the upper mountain passage and burn it from bottom to top,” says Roltes.

Nobunaga does so.

(My favorite song, the Shogun's petulant soul complaint!)

Yoshiaki is furious at the betrayal and sings a fantastic song to that effect back at his palace in Miyako. It’s the perfect time for Mitsuhide, now working for Nobunaga, and Nobunaga’s long-time right hand man Hashiba Hideyoshi (Miya Rurika) to bring the Christians--Roltes, Father Organtino, and Father Francisco Cabral--to the capital to see the Shogun. Father Francisco, sensing an opportunity, makes a play directly for the Shogun’s ego. They want him to give them permission to build a giant Christian temple. And if the Christians flip loyalties to the Shogun, what will that do to Nobunaga’s grip on power...

Mitsuhide is conflicted about Nobunaga’s betrayal of the Shogun by burning Mount Hiei but he and Hideyoshi and the rest of the Oda troops are confident that following Nobunaga is the right thing to do.

("I know who you are, Man With No Name...")

Meanwhile Nobunaga’s African servant (Takasumi Hayato) confronts Roltes with hints of his past. “Man with no name,” he warns Roltes, “I know who you are.” The servant had been a slave owned by Portuguese traders before jumping ship in Japan and he had seen Roltes before in Goa. “Nobunaga is the first person to treat me like a human being. If anything happens to him…”

Nobunaga visits the grave of his younger brother Nobuyuki (Ren Tsukasa) at Kiyosu Castle to sing a lament. We see a flashback of Nobuyuki’s murder, ordered by Nobunaga. But Yoshiyuki had been conspiring against Nobunaga and this is a brutal era of kill or be killed.

(Matching laments-- Nobunaga and Kichou)

Some of Kichou’s ladies-in-waiting happen across Nobunaga in his sad visit and we find out that Kichou has still not forgiven Nobunaga for destroying Mino and has been living estranged from her husband at Kiyosu Castle for the past ten years.

Nobunaga leaves and Kichou enters the stage to sing a lament of her own, to the unchanging scenery of her own life. She then summons her beloved servant Tsumaki (Asami Jun), Mitsuhide’s sister, to deliver something for her to Nobunaga in his palace at Gifu--the kimono Nobuyuki was killed in. It’s meant--I think--as a peace offering of sorts. Despite everything she still cares about Nobunaga.

(Roltes, you bastard!!!!)

But along the way to Gifu, Tsumaki is stopped by Roltes and drugged with a special psychedelic incense.

Arriving at Gifu, Roltes drugs Nobunaga with the same incense. He’s haunted by the ghosts of the people he’s lost over the years. Tsumaki appears--as if in a dream--and Nobunaga, drugged to the gills, mistakes her for his beloved Kichou.

(Dream Kichou!)

(There was an incredible amount of boob-grabbing in this production.)

(Tsumaki is cut down.)

But then the incense is discovered by Nobunaga’s African servant and Roltes and the Christians have to fight their way out of the palace. In the commotion, Nobunaga accidentally kills Tsumaki but he finds a crucifix left behind by Roltes. Evidence.


Nobunaga calls for Mitsuhide, who begs for a reason why this happened. “Is there anything I could say to convince you?” asks Nobunaga.

Mitsuhide is on the verge of crisis. What should he do?

In Miyako, Father Francisco and the Christians sing about spreading the power of Christ...and Portugal and Spain. Yoshiaki is a fool and doesn’t see the danger. Instead he is focused on petty revenge. Sensing the weakness in Mitsuhide, Yoshiaki prods at him, “If we get rid of Nobunaga, I’ll gather all the lords together under my rule.”

(Come on, just join the Shogun... who could resist that face?)

Mitsuhide sings a lament of his own, trying to figure out what to do. Is he able to betray his lord Nobunaga?

Meanwhile, Father Francisco consults with Roltes. If Roltes completes his duty, topples Nobunaga and weakens Japan so that Portugal can come in and seize power, then Roltes the “man with no name” will earn back his name, his honor.

("I thought we were going to save souls together...")

Father Organtino overhears this. He’s been betrayed. “I thought we were spreading the word of Christ. You are your own man. You make your own destiny.”

The threads all come together.

Mitsuhide convinces Hideyoshi and the rest of the Oda men to join a coup against Nobunaga, for the good of the nation.

But Kichou and her warrior ladies-in-waiting have uncovered the truth about what happened to Tsumaki and come running to prevent the coup.

During a battle, the men turn on Nobunaga.

(Nobunaga: STILL THE BOSS)

Yoshiaki and Roltes appear. “Forget something, Roltes?” Nobunaga tosses the crucifix back at the Italian knight.

Mitsuhide realizes he’s been the one played by Yoshiaki and the Christians.

Kichou dies taking a bullet for Nobunaga.

Hideyoshi, who’s never been one to overthink things, steps up to finally call the whole thing off. The coup is finished.

Roltes is distraught. This was his chance to earn back his honor. He begs Nobunaga to kill him.

But when Nobunaga fires the shot, it’s blocked by… the crucifix! It’s a sign and Roltes is now the loyal servant of Nobunaga.

The final scene. The temple in Miyako is burning and the Christians are cast out. Nobunaga has completed his unification of Japan and now he is going to take his leave.

He gives Mitsuhide and Hideyoshi some final words. He will leave things in their hands. He trusts them.

Roltes accompanies Nobunaga as far as the ship.

“Shall I come with you?” Roltes asks.

“I will travel the rest of the way alone,” says Nobunaga. “You stay here.”

(Dragon = 龍 or Ryu! Symbolism!)

Alone on stage Nobunaga cuts the rope to unfurl the ship’s sail, on which has been painted a massive dragon.

Nobunaga’s journey will continue.

The broad strokes of Nobunaga’s story are common knowledge in Japan. Oda Nobunaga was a 16th century 大名 (daimyo or feudal lord) of a small province called Owari (now part of Aichi province). He was a charismatic leader and excellent tactician. He did install Akigawa Yoshiaki as Shogun and gradually expanded his rule over a larger and larger area before being betrayed by Mitsuhide and committing seppuku. He’s known as the first man to unify Japan after the century long fighting of the Sengoku era.

Nobunaga famously was quite friendly with the Christian missionaries, especially Father Organtino Gnecchi-Soldo. Although not religious himself, Nobunaga valued the access to guns the Europeans brought, as well as seeing the Christians as tool to use against the powerful Buddhist abbots who acted as daimyo over their regions in all but name. (In the West, we received a lot of what we knew about Nobunaga through the letters of Father Luis Frois.)

The Sengoku era was one of extreme turmoil, not just from the constant battles. The old social orders were upended. The old lords cast down. The power vacuum left by the weakened Shogunate meant that it really was kill or be killed. Whoever could seize power, would seize it. Nobunaga would never have inherited power under the old order. His family had been caretakers of Owari, the actual lord of the province residing at the emperor’s court in Kyoto. Nobunaga’s wife’s father, the daimyo of Mino, had been a commoner, as was Nobunaga’s deputy, Hideyoshi, who would later go on to become ruler of Japan after Nobunaga’s defeat and death.

Nobunaga: The Will to Power is historical fantasy written with the assumption that the audience is already familiar with not just Nobunaga but Mitsuhide, Hideyoshi, Yoshiaki, Azai Nagamasu, O-ichi, Kichou, and the missionaries. The jumble of names and places I found so confusing are as well known and documented in Japanese popular culture as the Battle of Gettysburg and Abraham Lincoln in America. Nobunaga is a demon king, a savvy tactician, a friend to Christians, a bloodthirsty warlord, the man who united Japan and ended the 100 years of warring states. He is all of these and more in popular memory.

As Ryu Masaki’s final production as both a Top Star and a Takarasienne, the story had to be molded to fit the emotional narrative of Masaki’s departure from Takarazuka, capturing the sadness of saying good-bye and the excitement of beginning a new stage of her life.

(Ryu Masaki is a real wild child!)

Masaki’s Nobunaga begins the play as a wild child, loud and boisterous, dressed in contrasting, mismatched animal print and strutting cockily around stage. Through the production Nobunaga becomes less animated, weighed down by responsibility and the people he’s been forced to hurt in pursuit of a larger goal. By the end, we can see the relief in his face and the renewed spring in his step as he starts a new journey. The final scene with Roltes, played by Masaki’s replacement, the now-Top Star Tamaki Ryo, was extremely moving. A Top Star handing over her kingdom to her successor.

In real life Oda Nobunaga died in the coup led by Mitsuhide but the Top Star can’t die pathetically, cornered like a rat by her former subordinates! Her male persona is dead but she will sail triumphantly into unknown lands beyond. It really was extremely moving and there were quite a few ladies reaching for hankies in the audience when I saw the production.

Sao Kurama as the Shogun Yoshiaki is the perfect foil for this vigorous Nobunaga. Kurama is a talented comedic actress and her Yoshiaki is hilariously petulant, stupid, and vain. She stomps around, spends inordinate amounts of time looking smug, and delivers her lines like she’s a country club president in a 1980s snobs v. slobs film. It is delightful. Her big song is a call-and-response soul number complete with horn section hits and Kurama delivers like a mini-Takarazuka Aretha Franklin.

(The original odd couple!)

(A serious Nagina Ruumi.)

(Miya Rurika enjoying one of her many dance sequences!)

Nagina Ruumi and Miya Rurika put in charming performances as as Mitsuhide and Hideyoshi. The two share an easy chemistry, bickering like an old married couple. Ruumi, as the lordly Mitsuhide, is quiet and thoughtful. Hideyoshi, as the low born Hideyoshi, is loud and action-oriented, leading Oda’s troops in more than few raucous rock dance numbers. Ruumi and Rurika also share a friendly back-and-forth duet that feels like something from a classic Bob Hope-Bing Crosby picture.

Ruumi would transfer to the senior class of actresses after this production and I’m glad her final role wasn’t as a traitor who drives the top star to commit seppuku.

(Tamaki Ryo as the master reactor.)

Roltes was a fascinating character and the more I watched the play, the more I got into his story. The documentary evidence for an Italian knight named Roltes is slim at best but he seems to have become something of a legend and is rumored to have taken on a Japanese name and served the Christian daimyo Gamo Ujisato. Tamaki Ryo had a tough job selling us on this shady Italian knight who does the Church’s dirty work but her performance was fantastic. She spends a lot of time reacting to things and being quietly menacing but Tamaki Ryo has a gift for the physical and it shines through here, whether she’s boiling with barely contained fury at being found out by Nobunaga’s African servant or being quietly amused as Father Organtino’s excitement at the prospect of spreading the gospels to a new land.

(Manaki Reika kicking ass and taking names.)

Unfortunately the women characters didn’t really have much to do but Manaki Reika, as Kichou, did get a nice lament, a handful of action sequences, and a prominent on-stage death. And she looked gorgeous while doing all of it. I was also quite taken with Umino Mitsuki as the doomed O-ichi, who really only has one really memorable line as she’s getting shipped off to her forced marriage but she sells it. The despair on Mitsuki’s face can be read from the cheap seats.

One of the things I was really able to appreciate sitting in the theater for Nobunaga was the directing. Since I didn’t really understand the specifics of the dialogues and courtly intrigue of the story, I spent much of my time in the theater focusing on what I could see (and hear and smell). It comes across somewhat on the DVD but the sets themselves were minimal and so a lot had to be conveyed by the movement of the actresses on the stage. We’d often see the wings and ginkyou used to imply a change in location or a flashback. Sitting in the audience, focused on the action on the main stage, you’d suddenly get a real sense of the world expanding as characters emerged to stand on the wings or cross in front on the ginkyou.

The revolving stage and elevated stage lifts were also used very, very well. I very much enjoyed seeing Maskai revolve into view on the back of a massive steamwork elephant. And the elevated stage added a wonderful dynamic element to Kurama’s petulant show-stopping number. The choreography had her walking around in a huff on and off the elevated stage as she sang.

Between the rock music, the boisterous performances, and the dynamic direction, what could have been a snoozefest of a swords and top-knots period piece became something really fresh and exciting. Even now, just watching the DVD, I can still bring up the sense memory of sitting in the audience and smelling the incense as it wafted off stage. There really is nothing like seeing a Takarazuka performance live in the theater.

Forever Love, the second act of the production, was a straightforward revue on the theme of love. The light humor and melodic songs made for a nice contrast with the edgy rock of Nobunaga. The standout act for me was the three part “Sweet Love”- “Fantastic Love” - “Funny Love” which had three of the women who typically play male roles (otokoyaku) taking on the roles of female chanteuses and attempting to seduce Masaki.

I enjoyed this production immensely. (I don’t know if that came across. LOL!) And although it is very sad to say good-bye to Ryu Masaki as Top Star of Moon Troupe, I think this was a fitting farewell. I loved the incorporation of edgy rock elements, the playfulness, the way the supporting cast was allowed to shine… Acting has never been Ryu Masaki’s strong suit but she threw everything she had and more into the character of Nobunaga, breathing some humanity and life into a tired historical figure. I look forward to following her on the next stage of her journey--a CD!

And I’m also looking forward to seeing Tamaki Ryo as Top Star for the first time when I visit Japan in August.

The journey continues.

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