Shun-kin, about an SM loving dominatrix type (nowhere near as thrilling as it sounds), may well do little to dispel little Englanders’ hackneyed notions of the East. It contains their knee-jerk tropes of Japanese cruelty and obedience. But it also muddies the narrative waters, so that nothing is quite as it seems.
Directed by Complicite’s Simon McBurney, the Public Theatre of Setagaya takes as its starting point a short story written in 1933, and set in the preceding century, by hugely popular Japanese writer Jun’ichiro Tanizaki. The Life of Shun-kin is the tale of a beautiful and talented girl who at the age of eight is brutally blinded, possibly in an act of jealousy. Whilst she devotes herself to mastery of the shamisen (a three-stringed lute), her servant Sasuke devotes himself utterly to her every desire. When, in another act of barbarity, Shun-kin is branded with a boiling kettle, Sasuke blinds himself so that he will never see her disfigurement.
Tanizaki is deeply equivocal about his story. This is a murky business, he seems to say, and I cannot pretend to know what happened. He will often offer a number of different explanations; there are inklings of political allegory. Unfortunately the curse of visual representation is that one has to come down one way or another, and say, “I’m in!” McBurney’s strategy is to have a number of different story-tellers: there is the author himself, shady and over-exercised by the erotic potential of his story; the ancient and unreliable Sasuke; and the framing device of a modern-day fag-puffing actress who is recording the story in a Kyoto studio.
This makes for murk, all right. As do the surtitles, positioned so the spectator catches only glimpses of the action, or misses it altogether: I suppose this is one way of representing the unknowable.
The staging of this show does have a seductive beauty and gorgeous slow-cook rhythms. There are vintage Complicite images (literally: book pages for bird wings is so 1993!), and the nimble ensemble move with a spare and delicate grace, using tatami mats and poles to demarcate domestic spaces; the sliding doors to cloistered rooms open and close on a sigh. Projections of figments and fragments flicker briefly on a huge screen: a blurred photograph, dissolving clouds, a silhouette of Osaka.
As for the eponymous heroine, she is not corporeally present for much of the time as she is played by a succession of puppets, which like a trick of the light morph into a masked actress, still manipulated by her discreet puppeteers. One of them finally steps briefly into the light to take the role, only to be bandaged up, and finally veiled.
Perhaps this illustrates for us that the women of 19th century Japan, in Tanizaki’s words, had “almost no flesh”, bound up as they were in elaborate silks, with whitened faces and blackened teeth, hidden in palanquins (much of which sounds depressingly familiar). If such women are dolls – Shun-kin is said to be tiny – they are also a sort of nothingness. Scraps of kimono reveal emptiness behind them. Sasuke is chasing an illusion.
When Shun-kin has sex with her skivvy, she appears to be blown away – as in, she comes apart, her tiny doll limbs pulled into bits by her handlers: it’s desire as dismemberment. The lack of a body, and its atomizing, are disturbing enough, but this sexual creature is also tyrannical, abusive and cruel. About this Tanizaki is unequivocal. She had to be a bitch. The symbolic slips into the personal; depressingly, the point at which Shun-kin becomes “real” (like a badass Velveteen Rabbit) is when she is most termagant-like.
McBurney grafts on to the tale an essay on aesthetics by Tanizaki, In Praise of Shadows, which prizes the darkness and nuance in Japanese culture prior to the Western contribution of the electric light. In the show the modern-day actress appears to step from an ultra-violet Seven-Eleven nightmare into the crepuscular gloom of her studio, and at the end the shadowy characters disappear into – blinding – light, to be replaced by the frantic visuals and cacophony of Kyoto station. There is nostalgia here for the subtle mysteries of the Shun-kin era, but with what we have just seen of misogyny and violence it’s not a nostalgia that is easy to share.
But then, it’s fascinatingly hard to know just what has been seen. Which might inadvertently feed into another prêt-à-porter trope – that of the “inscrutable Oriental”.