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Kafka On The Shore: Bewitching flight of fancy

A strong cast and stunning set design make this production of Kafka On The Shore an earnest odyssey

REVIEW / THEATRE

KAFKA ON THE SHORE

Ninagawa Company

Esplanade Theatre/Last Saturday

The readers of Haruki Murakami I have encountered generally fall into two categories: those who abhor his virile straight-man philosophising and those who are ceaselessly bewitched by his compelling whimsy.

The Ninagawa Company's visually sumptuous adaptation of Murakami's hit novel Kafka On The Shore (2002) will likely reinforce whichever long-held conviction the viewer was aligned with in the first place.

The three-hour epic is as faithful as it can be to the structure of the surrealistic, metaphysical novel, packing in as many representative scenes as possible to give the narrative and characters flesh and bone, as well as retaining flashes of Murakami's philosophical flights of fancy.

Fifteen-year-old runaway Kafka Tamura (Nino Furuhata), in his attempt to shake off an Oedipal fate, finds himself taking refuge in a small library, where he meets its mysterious manager, Miss Saeki (Rie Miyazawa), and gender-fluid librarian Oshima (Naohito Fujiki).

Kafka's story alternates with that of the simple-minded and elderly Nakata (an excellent and endearing Katsumi Kiba) who, while tracking down a lost cat, embarks on a fantastical journey. Their parallel journeys eventually converge, but not in a way one might expect.

Japanese director Yukio Ninagawa, who has demonstrated a particular affinity with Greek and Shakespearean tragedy, draws deep from their running threads of fate and choice for one of Murakami's most opaque novels.

Ninagawa, who turns 80 this year, was inspired by the American Museum of Natural History in his use of towering, ambulatory glass boxes that glide soundlessly across the stage, containing everything from urinals and vending machines to forests and trucks, and allowing for dramatic shifts in setting and landscape, courtesy of a team of tireless, black-clad kuroko - the stagehands you might see in productions of kabuki or bunraku puppetry.

These stunning dioramas by set designer Tsukasa Nakagoshi come together as a living museum of memories. So many of the novel's characters are trapped in time or by their memories or personal histories and they move between one frozen moment and the next.

It is a gorgeous framing device and serves as an excellent guide when it comes to thematic parallels in the text between one character's journey and the next, marrying intention with action and giving the audience a sense of a visual connection that might not be as clear in the pages of a novel.

The cast is uniformly strong, showcasing some remarkable physical work in order to channel a trio of life-sized, talking cats in the most matter-of-fact way possible, as well as food and beverage icons Colonel Sanders and Johnnie Walker.

This production, I think, is more inclined to reward those who have read the novel, while those who have not might find themselves a little more at sea than on the shore.

The stage adaptation by Frank Galati trims as much of the fat as it can, as well as a good chunk of character development, leaving some characters a little flimsier than others and making the isolated snippets of Murakami's rhapsodising ("Fate is like a small sandstorm that keeps changing directions") sound just a bit too pithy and trite.

These gaps in the plot, while necessary, mean that the unfamiliar viewer will end up with a truncated brand of Murakami-lite, while the familiar reader will revel in absolutely beautiful imagery brought to vivid life.

To put Murakami's textured, labyrinthine novel on stage is a near impossible task and Ninagawa and Galati come as close as they can to reaching a happy medium and one that is simply mesmerising to look at.

Even the most hardened sceptic might crack a smile - or shed a tear - at this earnest, propulsive odyssey, where fish might fall from the sky or immortal soldiers might emerge from the forest.

In Murakami and Ninagawa's joint theatre of memories, anything is possible.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 02, 2015, with the headline 'Bewitching flight of fancy'. Print Edition | Subscribe