Hanafuda Denki - A Tale of Playing Cards Are you a winner or a loser in this life-and-death game?
nytheatre.com review by Chris Harcum
August 22, 2012
As an American, it is an unspoken given that there are certain things you should never contemplate, such as what exactly comprises artificial sweeteners, how many hours you spend in front of your TV, the size of the holes in the ozone layer, and your own death. Our society is becoming increasingly designed to distract us from thinking about these pesky things. Fortunately for us, the Ryuzanji Company has come to our shores from Tokyo with Shuji Terayama's Hanafuda Denki, a lively musical comedy about a family running a funeral parlor called the "House of the Dead." This family also happens to not be alive.
Hanafuda is a Japanese game played with cards that are decorated with flowers or animals. Denki means "romance." And in this play, many turns of fortune happen when the daughter of the owners of the funeral parlor does the unspeakable and falls in love with a young man who happens to be living. This story is told in a style that mixes elements of Eastern and Western entertainment. This play was written in 1967, but is set in the Taisho Period, which was from 1912 to 1926. The structure gives ample nods to Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's The Threepenny Opera. Frequently, the characters, and often the entire company, break out into contemporary-sounding pop songs, with performers taking turns at a microphone. They pull in a bit of the Takarazuka tradition of having a woman, the excellent Hiroko Ito, play the romantic male leading role. If I were to sum up the overall style it would be camp, possibly best exemplified by the funeral parlor's wife being played by a man, the equally enjoyable IWAO, sporting an actual beard.
I found it interesting that the characters would often say they were in hell, though they were basically in the same funeral parlor in downtown Tokyo that the living people would frequent. The dead were not so much on another plane or an alternate reality, but having to play by a different set of rules. While Brecht and Weill's play asks whether it's the robber of the bank or the creator of the bank who is the bigger thief, Hanafuda Denki begs the question of whether the dead are more alive than the living.
At times, I found this a little difficult to follow. 98% of the piece is spoken in Japanese. There are titles is English above the back wall. Claire Tanaka did a great job of writing a simple and clear translation that earned many laughs. Though the titles were timed with care and precision, I missed some of the story conveyed in the gestures or by what is written on the performer's expressive faces when looking up to read the content of their lines. But even during the few occasions when I was lost, I just had a darn good time.
I admire how solid and energetic the Ryuzanji Company's production is. Just three days after completing a week of performances at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, they drop in at FringeNYC for a week before going to the Victoria and Vancouver Festivals. To their credit, they didn't bring over an easy show to do. There are a dozen performers wearing elaborate makeup and amazing costumes by an uncredited designer. Daiko Ishimaru's choreography and Saori Aoki's direction require a lot of precision and cohesion from the ensemble. Plus, Makoto Honda's music, ROMI and Etsuo Yamagami's lighting design and Nanaho Unebe and So Suwa's sound design match the frequency and intensity of the stage movement. This show is a feast for the eyes and ears. And the entire company of actors does an admirable job of pulling off the mash-up of styles in this. They are all top-notch and so great to watch.
At the end of the evening, two of the members of the company stood in the lobby and bowed to each of the exiting patrons and sincerely said, "arigato." If this is hell, sign me up. Heck, I'll even become fluent in Japanese.