November 22, 2002

'Rashomon' Meets Chinese Opera

Ever since "Rashomon" won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 1952, the Japanese film directed by Akira Kurosawa based on the two novels "In the Grove" and "Rashomon" by Ryunosuke Akutagawa has maintained its grip over several generations, especially movie-makers and theatrical artists.

Intriguing Story

In the past few months, different adaptations of "Rashomon" have been staged in Japan and Italy. A number of British artists are discussing with Japanese counterparts how to create a British stage version.

Starting tomorrow night, a group of young Chinese Kunqu Opera artists from the Northern Kunqu Opera Troupe will present two theatrical interpretations of "Rashomon" in the mini-theatre at the Beijing People's Art Theatre.

A traditional Chinese Kunqu Opera and the modern spoken play production, will be staged in two shows on alternate days through August 3.

The tale tells of a Japanese samurai who takes his wife on a journey. On the way they are cheated by a bandit, who leads them into the woods. The woman is raped and the samurai dies.

While several people seek shelter from a pelting rainstorm at Kyoto's crumbling Rashomon gate, they start to discuss what happened during the crimes and they discover that each person present that day has a different story.

Who tells the true story? Or, which part of the story truly happened? Does truth exist?

According to James Berardinelli, a film critic, "many people watch ‘Rashomon’ with the intent of piecing together a picture of what really occurred. However, the accounts are so divergent that such an approach seems doomed to futility."

The story is more than just solving a mystery, he adds.

"’Rashomon’ isn't about determining a chronology of what happened in the woods. It's not about culpability or innocence. Instead, it focuses on something far more profound and thought-provoking: the inability of any one man to know the truth, no matter how clearly he thinks he sees things. Perspective distorts reality and makes the absolute truth unknowable."

For Fang Tong, director of the two stage productions in China, "This is not a suspense like Hitchcock's, or a mystery like those of Sherlock Holmes. This is a play with Asian acting techniques and incorporates the Asian concepts of 'truth,' 'man' and 'humanity.'"

The two stage productions, however, contain slightly different plots, "because we want to provide different philosophical examinations of humanity," Fang said.

Fang, who is also one of the co-screenplay writers, said that he and his colleagues have tried to follow the tradition of ancient Chinese playwrights Tang Xianzu and Guan Hanqing in creating the Kunqu version. They have interwoven the Kunqu Opera arias with kungfu and traditional Chinese boxing to give it a more historical context, since the legend of "Rashomon" is said to have dated centuries back.

In the modern spoken drama version, they set the stage inside a contemporary opera theatre in which a couple and a man work together to rehearse their new production, "Rashomon." The husband is the director, and the two others are performers.

The complicated love-hate relationship between them leads to many conflicts of ideas. The show shuttles between the real world and the stage world, highlighting some contemporary social problems such as people's values towards life and responsibility.

But kungfu fights with short-tilted broad swords will also be used to highlight the conflicts in the drama.

Fang emphasized that his two plays are very different from Kurosawa's film.

In the modern drama version, Fang and his colleagues took care to make the scenes as close to daily life as possible.

"I prefer dramas that lead the audiences into deep thinking," Fang said. "So I try to control myself to make the plot closer to the facts."

Multi-talented Cast

Wang Zhenyi, an actor who plays the young man's role in Kunqu, is also the winner of the 16th Chinese Plum Prize -- the country's highest drama award. He will perform the role of the samurai.

Wang, 32, began learning Kunqu in the Northern Kunqu Opera Troupe at the age of 12.

Having performed in Japan and the United States and given lectures on Kunqu Opera at colleges, Wang said that he has developed a strong passion for Kunqu, China's oldest operatic genre that was declared by the UNESCO as "a masterpiece of oral and intangible human heritage" on May 18th, 2001.

"I had no confidence when I started the work two months ago. It demands me to live in the role of a samurai, which is a big challenge for me," Wang said. "For two months, I have been very tired, but I find it interesting and meaningful, especially when I make progress on my performing skills."

Kozo Yamada, who has lived in China for seven years and is now working on his doctorate in economics at Beijing Normal University, will take up the role of a prison warden, a tree, and a demon in the play.

In the past few years, he has performed in many Chinese dramas and received awards such as the Gold Dragon Prize in the second International Contest for Amateur Performers of Peking Opera.

Yamada noted that Japanese people read Ryunosuke Akutagawa's story at a very young age, and his works mainly depict the emotions of individuals, but the two Chinese plays have developed it into displaying the relationship between individuals and the society.

"I believe the cultural meaning of the play has surpassed the play itself," Yamada said. "I feel very happy about cooperating with Chinese actors from whom I have learned a lot."

Yao Yu, TV writer and director at China Central Television, plays the role of the bandit. He will perform with a dark-red painted face.

"I saw the script two years ago, and I was very interested in it, so I volunteered to play the role," Yao said. "In the plays, you will find something very close to your real life. It takes the form of a love story to talk about humanity."

While watching the rehearsal, Gu Yu, deputy manager of the Times Network Station for Peking Opera said: "The plays are original in their concept and their strong conflicts have brought me into an intriguing world."

(China Daily July 24, 2002)

In This Series
Artists From Japan, China Perform Traditional Opera

Kunqu Opera Attracts Worldwide Attention

Kun Melody, Oldest Opera in China Honored by UNESCO

Modern Kunqu Opera Tells Ancient Historian's Story



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