Samurai Sword Soul’s mission is “to spread the Bushi-Do, The Way of Samurai, and to introduce TATE (Japanese sword stage fighting) to people who are not familiar with it.” Utsuyo Kakuryo excellently showcases pieces of Japanese artistic heritage, from the Bushi-do to Bunraku and Butoh.
Set simultaneously in the Sengoku or ‘Warring States’ period from the middle of the 16th to the beginning of the 17th century in Japan, and the Kakuryo, ‘world of lost souls,’ the respected leader of a small revolutionary group, Izou, struggles to integrate his past culture and current suffering. Scenes in the realistic world of feudal conflict are performed in Japanese with English subtitles, while those of Izou’s current limbo state, full of convulsing tortured bodies, are in English.
The brash Sugimaru Saiga, played by Yoshihisa Kuwayama in a manner reminiscent of some of Toshiro Mifune’s famous performances in Akira Kurosawa films, confronts the home of Izou and his movement, and refuses to honor or join their endeavor. Izou, played by Yoshi Amao with a stern melancholy, disappears when his wife Ichi and unborn child are mysteriously murdered. Shion, his guide in the Kakuryo, is hauntingly executed by Takemi Kitamura using Butoh-style movement.
Kumayama, also director, coordinates an impressive array of theatrical components. A Bunraku puppet operated by Mariko Shibata, Natsuko Hayashi, and Yu-Taniguchi runs slow motion across a long white fabric. A white screen that moved across the stage, for projections to appear, also is used to create some magically smooth transitions. Saiga’s father, killed by Izou, appears in stunning full Japanese warrior’s armor.
Then there is the elegant sword fighting choreographed by Kuwayama. The flow of action in a fight is a swirling dance of one versus many. I was often unclear on the distinction between moments of sword impact, near misses, and bodily strikes, making my relationship to the fight more like watching dance than watching fight sequences focused on the hits.
Seiichiro Koizumi combines live music on the Shamisen and Japanese flute, recorded music from Brian Eno to Stravinsky, and original compositions by Bora Yoon, to skillfully support the stage action.
Almost every character is an orphan. The story written by Kuwayama and Kitamura is about a bridge between the glorious warring past and lost present using the Samurai sword. The orphans are unified by a movement wherein they are rediscovering their souls. It is as much an immigrant’s story as a Samurai’s.