by Lillian Meredith · August 13, 2014
Soga Shohaku is an exciting and fascinating art history lesson, but an ultimately disappointing theatrical event. Over the course of the hour-long play, we are guided through a basic overview of 18th century Japanese art, complete with projections illustrating different styles. We encounter a magnificent rooster by Ito Jakuchu, landscapes and waterfalls by members of the Kano school. We are introduced to the works of Maruyama Okyo, the most popular painter of the day and the narrative’s antagonist. And we are shown, over and over, the beautiful, strange, almost demonic visions created by Soga Shohaku. The pictures are stunning, even just projected against the wall, and the concept behind them, of searching within for something beautiful rather than looking elsewhere, is particularly poignant. We learn about the search for Japanese national and personal identity and the shift from imitation to self-expression through a basic rundown of artistic rivalries and discoveries.
Unfortunately, the narrative structure doesn’t quite live up to its themes. The play, such as it is, is told through the eyes of the artist Ike no Taiga, who invites Soga Shohaku for dinner. Over the course of the meal, Soga hijacks the story and tells a series of anecdotes about what an alcoholic mess he is, and how he only makes art when he feels like it. Ike no Taiga and his wife laugh at him and make light of his rudeness towards them, while also portraying characters in his stories. And while it is thrilling to see another painting at the end of each story, the tales themselves aren’t particularly engaging, and don’t build towards a cohesive whole.
The actors are game, and very charming, particularly Kazunori Tezuka and Yuko Yamazaki who play the artist and his wife. They weave seamlessly between characters and seem to each share a secret in-joke with the audience. And there are a few really lovely transitions between the present and the past – although there are moments where the line gets blurred to the point of being unclear and confusing. But I think director/playwright Yuko Murata underestimated the extent to which an English-speaking audience would understand the importance of certain names or the role of honor and prestige in 18th century Japanese society.
In the end, we know a little more about Soga Shohaku, about his work and his life, than we did when we came in. Moreover we’re told, implicitly through the narrative and explicitly in the program, that the questions raised are pertinent to Japanese society today – who are we, what do we want to convey, how do we stay true to ourselves. It is thought-provoking, if not always emotionally resonant. But maybe that’s enough.