Kagotsurube’s stylized drama is razor-sharp.
Cinema Kabuki, the festival of recorded performances of Japan's ancient art form, returns with a few sold-out hits from previous years (Heron Maiden, Hokaibo and Murder In A Hell Of Oil), one new film (Kagotsurube) and a different venue in the Lightbox, which is hosting as part of the city-wide Spotlight Japan series.
I reviewed and recommended the raucous, raunchy comedy Hokaibo this time last year, but Kagotsurube is even more absorbing. Ancient tragedy, whatever the culture, seems pretty universal.
In the Yoshiwara pleasure district in mid-19th century Edo (now Tokyo), a country merchant named Sano Jirozaemon (Nakamura Kanzaburo) catches the eye of the renowned courtesan Yatsuhashi (Bando Tamasaburo), who soon takes him on as a client. Sano, whose face is disfigured by pockmarks, is generous to her and the teahouse where she works, and even offers to buy out her contract to have her become his personal mistress (a concept familiar to those who've read Memoirs Of A Geisha).
But when Yatsuhashi's handsome lover, Einojo (Kataoka Nizaemon), discovers this, he asks her to choose between the two men, and this leads to a devastating scene of public disgrace and the ensuing action involving the eponymous Kagotsurube (which translates as "haunted sword").
Western viewers might take a while to adjust to the stylized acting - not to mention the fact that the women are played by men - but the work mixes humour and drama effectively, and it's easy to get swept up in this world of precision, etiquette and grace.
The penultimate scene, featuring extended monologues by Kanzaburo and Tamasaburo, is white-knuckle tense. And look for one sequence where two characters repeat the word "Well" a dozen times, each with a different inflection. Fascinating.