King's Theatre, Edinburgh
August, 2011

Haruki Murakami’s work is often seen in international literary circles as the quintessence of contemporary Japan. This adaptation of his 1995 novel (published in English in 1997) certainly seems to sit squarely within that field of consciousness. Murakami’s story, with its Japanese take on magic realism, mixes precocious schoolgirls and demagogue politicians with a prostitute with spiritual powers and a motif of entrapment down a well echoing through the past and present; similarly, this staging blends live action, bunraku puppetry and a number of video styles in an aesthetic which constantly rubs the classical and the modern up against each other.

What might be surprising is that the production’s creative driver is not Japanese but American. Filmmaker and former Miramax director of production Stephen Earnhart approached the project as he had done a number of his documentary films, by long-term immersion, living for a year or so in Japan in order to begin to grasp the perspective(s) of the book and its everyman protagonist Toru Okada. As Toru searches for his missing cat and his missing wife he encounters a bizarre TV game show, dream police, a veteran of the war in Manchuria and on all sides dark forces seemingly under the control of his sinister politico brother-in-law. Earnhart’s script condensation (with Greg Pearce) of Murakami’s 600-page novel has the episodic feel of a screen work, but as director he finds a style of dissolving between scenes with deft use of lighting and multimedia split focus. Bora Yoon, in a bullpen at the front of the stalls, provides live music and soundscapes ranging from synthesizer to tuned bowls and pouring water into and out of a (tenanted) fishtank. In mood, looks and feel, the production articulates that collective Japanese sense of being amid an ancient sea but surfing the breaking Hokusai wave of the future.

A caveat, however: anyone of more than average height will find two uninterrupted hours in the constrictive seating of the King’s Theatre to be an agonising experience. More than one of the walkouts around me were visibly or audibly due not to dissatisfaction with the presentation but to overpowering cramps; had I not been on duty, I would have been among them.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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