Sakura no gotoku, Like a cherry tree
nytheatre.com review by Kyle Ancowitz
August 13, 2006
It saddens me to report that Sakura no gotoku, Like a cherry tree is an intriguing historical fable, elegantly staged and spectacularly performed in Japanese by Sakura Sakura Company, an all-female troupe from Japan. So why so sad? Because this troupe bravely delivered everything that was promised, only to have their work spoiled by shockingly inept English supertitles. I can say with total confidence that I think I would have loved it.
Most of what I know about the story comes from the program notes, which are very detailed, though not very clearly translated. Sakura no gotoku tells the true story of a samurai militia known as Shinsengumi, which operated in Kyoto at the end of Japan’s feudal period in the 1860s. Even without a clear understanding of the action, I felt the performances were terrific across the board. Mariko Tokunaga and Kaoru Oura command attention as rival samurai bureaucrat-warriors, Yamanami and Hijikata. Kaede Mutsuki is entrancing as the geisha who falls in love with Yamanami even though she’s determined to kill him for murdering her brother. Kazuki Aoi deserves special mention for her versatility; her comic turns as Okita, a third samurai, had me cackling in scenes I had no other way of understanding, but she managed to register his terror in the face of imminent death from tuberculosis with affecting skill.
Writer/director Keiko Nakano explains in the program that the tale, as well as the symbol of the cherry blossom itself, represents something distinct about the Japanese spirit, and that having an American audience sense that spirit is the sole purpose of her company’s visit from Japan. If that spirit is persistence and bravery in the face of hardship, then I believe the message came across, even if I couldn’t understand what anyone was saying. The truth of it is, Sakura is a perfect show for the Fringe in so many ways. A four-woman cast with a simply-staged play traveling nearly ten thousand miles for the sake of cross-cultural sharing on one of our own off-off stages—come on, it’s inspiring! Nakano and her cast make their magic happen in an empty space. Costumes, a handful of props, and strong performances are all they need to transport the audience to Japan of a century and a half ago. It’s practically a tragedy that so much depended on a single technical element, which in turn failed so flamboyantly.
I hesitate to fuss about technical production because the Fringe rightly places emphasis on other, more perfomative elements, but—really—it didn’t need to be that way. The supertitles were projected onto a black velour curtain with pleats. The focusing cut off the first and last three words of each line. Whoever was advancing the slideshow seemed to get distracted and would advance them too rapidly to be read. In the final scenes moments of the play, the screen would go dark for a dozen lines at a time, almost as if the operator had simply stopped caring. At one point the titles flashed a whole line of Japanese characters. How did that happen? The errors here were so careless and, as a result, the performance was so savagely undermined, that I was angry and humiliated for the sake of the hardworking cast.
I saw Sakura no Gotoku at its very first performance, so I pray for the sake of the company and the audience that the crew got this one problem solved. If the titles work, I strongly believe that Fringe-goers will be rewarded with a unique and memorable performance from Sakura Sakura Company. Even so, I’m grateful to have witnessed the spirit these women traveled so far to share.