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Asian Theatre Journal 24.1 (2007) 287-290

Reviewed by
Tim Medlock
Kansai University
In A Thicket. Adapted by Nomura Mansai from the short story by Akutagawa Ryūnosuke. English subtitles by Jonah Salz. M & O Plays. MO-301–2: NTSC. ¥6,000 ($52.00).

In 1994 the young kyōgen actor Nomura Mansai set off to spend a year in England, hungry for new experience and keen to expand the boundaries of his talent. On his travels he was particularly impressed by Theatre de Complicite. The group founded in 1983 by Le Coq–trained artists Simon McBurney, Annabel Arden, and Marcello Magni, and which has gained international acclaim for productions such as The Street of Crocodiles and Memento, devised without scripts from workshops and renowned for their visually imaginative nature. Their powerful physicality and playful lightness must surely have reminded him of his own kyōgen tradition at its best. Yet on his return to Japan Mansai was determined to direct a production that could rival what he had seen and, more importantly, prove kyōgen's potential to bridge the past and the present, drawing on tradition to create something new and inspiring. He decided on Akutagawa Ryūnosuke's 1922 short story of rape, robbery, and murder, In a Thicket (Yabu no naka). Better known outside Japan through Kurosawa Akira's movie adaptation Rashomon, the story consists of several conflicting testimonies concerning a violent incident in a dense thicket off the road between Kyoto and nearby Yamashina. Mansai recruited to this project his father, Nomura Mansaku, Mansaku's long-term disciple Ishida Yukio and—in a rare collaboration with kyōgen's other family—Living National Treasure Shigeyama Sensaku and two of his sons, Sengorō and Senzaburō.

Staged periodically throughout 1999 in two versions, one adapted to the stage, the other to a modern theatre, In a Thicket met great acclaim, confirming Mansai as one of the brightest and most innovative of Japan's traditional actors. Both versions (one at the National Nō Theatre, Tokyo, the [End Page 287] other at Theatre Cocoon, Tokyo) have now been issued in a DVD set, including commentary by Mansai, and with optional (and excellent) English subtitles (but no optional Japanese subtitles, unfortunately).

The DVD set comprises two discs, the first containing the performance staged at the National Nō Theatre (81 minutes), the second the performance at Theatre Cocoon (80 minutes), with both plays conveniently indexed according to their nine episodes, making it very easy to find a particular section. Both discs also contain various bonus features. The first disc includes thirteen minutes of commentary on the play by Mansai, followed by nineteen minutes of interview at the theatre; while the second disc includes a further six minutes of interview. Within these extra features Mansai talks about the play itself, casting, direction, the structure of the piece, and thematic connections between the characters in Thicket and similar ones in kyōgen plays.

At first glance, this dark tale of violence, greed, and dishonesty may seem an unlikely fit for kyōgen's sunny disposition, but Mansai perceived a strong thematic link that convinced him kyōgen's traits could transfer the story vividly to the stage. Many kyōgen feature a character that bends the truth to his own advantage, whether an idle servant escaping a burdensome job, a con man swindling a country bumpkin, or a bombastic mountain priest (yamabushi). Mansai observed the same self-serving tendency apparent in the characters of Akutagawa's story, as all attempt to present themselves in the best possible light while unwittingly casting a shadow of suspicion instead. The unreliable and self-aggrandizing nature of each person's testimony could also, Mansai realized, be entertainingly suggested through the colourful and exaggerated style of kyōgen itself, as if the characters were protesting a bit too much. In his excellent commentary accompanying the DVD (not to be confused with subchannel commentaries so popular these days), Mansai explains, "Playing it light-heartedly avoids a suspension of disbelief . . . maintain(ing) the falsity of...


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