Stratford Circus, London
November 24, 2015
It is perhaps unfortunate that Kuli-Kala: Revenge of the Samurai followed so soon after the sublime China National Peking Opera. There are some similarities in the productions: tumbling in fight scenes and much wielding of swords, but, whereas the China Opera performers had the artform embodied deeply with every nuanced gesture in service of plot and character, the performers at times looked insecure and there was much dependence on clichéd, superficiality.
The small stage did not help. Indeed, there was no doubt an element of skill involved in the performers not impaling each other, but neither the characters not the fights were enacted with enough conviction to seem real or enough skill to be stylised.
There are also structural flaws in Nobuhiro Mouri’s direction. A long musical introduction is accompanied by a bare stage with nothing other than a projection and lights to look at. When narrator Lynne Hobday did appear, a long exposition was delivered in a rather inexpressive voice that failed to engender the slightest interest in the story.
When we finally see the performers, they are accompanied by a deafeningly loud pop score that make the metal fittings of the performing space hum and rattle. Whilst Toshihiko Sahashi’s music pays lip service to traditional Japanese music, it is a shopping mall composition of bland songs sung to even blander sentiments. To their credit, the musicians in the pit (JQ-B), some fetchingly costumed in a Dr Who 1980s sort of way, and conductor/composer Toshihiko Sahashi, more Victorian music hall, threw their all into it with great gusto, jigging up and down and even flailing over a curious creation that resembled a theramin. Sahashi should take care not to flick his score over so loudly however; in a rare moment of quiet he killed a fellow performer’s entrance stone dead.
Set in the mythical province of Zipang back in the 16th century, the story concerns a young samurai sworn to avenge the brutal murder of his family by an evil shogun. As he goes in search of his nemesis he meets three female ninja warriors (kunoichi) who have suffered similarly (parents died in battle, father gave one away, that sort of thing), who join up with him. They ninjas appear not to have any supernatural powers as they mostly get beaten in fights.
Movement serves the cartoon elements of the piece rather than appealing choreographically. In the fight with the shogun there is much whirling in circles and waving of weapons (I’m sure than in a real fight one wouldn’t want to take one’s eye off the opposition or waste so much energy in flashing swords to no effect). Everything is over the top, the sword swishing, for example, is accompanied by synthesised sound effects – the aural equivalent of pop art pows and whams. A couple of chaps in black run on every so often to do the tumbling.
Another hiatus of bare stage comes about two thirds the way, this time paired with a dizzyingly horrible projection of Japanese scenery that looks as if it is from a colonial Tintin In The Orient type book, and that swishes and sways in tribute to the functionality of the software rather than the sensibilities of the audience. This is interspersed with cutesy Disney-esque animals that supposedly represent incarnations of the goddesses.
Brief respite is provided by a male and female character in white who sing sentimental pop ballads about peace and love when all around is war. The soprano is pleasant, but tenor Toshihiko Nishimura has a rather weak voice and unconvincing presentation that struggles to carry across the footlights.
The denouement, when it finally arrives after about 90 minutes, has the men die and the ninja warriors live, although if they’d discovered their powers a bit earlier they could have saved everyone a lot of trouble. If that seems brief, it shouldn’t. The men take an age to die. In spite of skewering each other to the accompaniment of squishy sound effects, they keep jumping up and singing again, then having another swipe at each other.
Kuli-Kala: Revenge of the Samurai may appeal to those who like their action to be two dimensional and the music loud; not for me though.