Hiroshi Koike presented an intercultural production of a story from the ancient Mahabharata.
The Mahabharata holds a special place in Hiroshi Koike’s heart. The acclaimed Japanese director, choreographer, and master of physical theatre read the sacred epic 20 years ago and felt deeply connected to the storyline.
“It reminded me of Japan; after 100 years of solitude, we rebuilt ourselves and then crumbled again due to nuclear disasters and so forth,” he says at a recent interview.
“There was a time when the old Japan was in the process of transitioning to the new Japan of the post-war age. The influences of communism and the socialist party were still very strong and yet Japan in general was searching for a new place in the world.
“In the mid-90s, Japan started becoming insular. Our focus was on the inside whereas I wanted to go out to expand. I had this feeling we were self-destructing and the Fukushima episode proved that,” says Koike, who recently staged The Mahabharata: Chapter Two at the Damansara Performing Arts Centre in Kuala Lumpur.
Written in Sanskrit, The Mahabharata is an ancient Indian epic consisting of 18 books and over 100,000 poems.
The story is about two sets of paternal first cousins – the five sons of the deceased king Pandu and the one hundred sons of blind King Dhritarashtra – who become bitter rivals, and oppose each other in war for possession of the ancestral Bharata kingdom.
“The Mahabharata is a work which has the essence of Asian thought, philosophy, and sensibility. Asian countries have developed their own distinctive culture, which is rich in compassion and tolerance. By taking lessons from history, we can derive a new perspective to this history and rediscover what we had and search what we have,” says Koike.
After the tsunami caused the Fukushima nuclear plant meltdown in 2011, Koike felt the necessity to close his former company, Pappa Tarahumara, and restart from ground zero.
Pappa Tarahumara was formed in 1982 by Koike and fellow students from Hitotsubashi University. He became their leader, and wrote and directed all their performances.
In its 30 years of existence, the company staged more than 55 cutting-edge productions that travelled around the world.
Koike established the Hiroshi Koike Bridge Project in 2012 with the intention of bridging the 20th and 21st centuries via international collaborations.
The new outfit uses various media, such as film, photography, installation works, and writings, in its productions.
The company aims to educate people who can “think through their body” and create a bridge between the countries in world.
The four-part Mahabharata project, supported by the Asia Center of the Japan Foundation-Tokyo, is the Bridge Project’s first major assignment.
The first chapter was staged in 2013 in Cambodia and Vietnam, while the second took place in India, Malaysia, and Indonesia earlier this month.
The third and fourth segments are in the works.
Koike’s intention is to showcase these chapters in as many Asian countries as possible.
“When the tsunami happened, I took The Mahabharata and read it again. I felt the urge to stage it but with only Asians performers, not Westerners. Our centre of body connects to the earth while Westerners connect to the heavens,” he says.
The 110-minute, intermission-free Chapter Two commenced from the game of dice that results in the Pandu family being exiled for 13 years.
With a cast of eight, Koike comprehensively created a theatrical story using the essence of Asian body culture and different Balinese masks to represent 32 different characters.
The production featured a rare and unique combination of some of the most talented performers from Japan, Thailand, Malaysia and India, including Malaysian butoh dancer Lee Swee Keong, Balinese mask dancer Tetsuro Koyano, Thai dancer and choreographer Waewdao Sirosook, and noted Japanese dancer Sachiko Shiraii. Their Indian counterparts were Sreejith Ramanan, a versatile actor; Denny Paul and Sumesh Chingu, former dancers from Attakkalari-Bangalore; and Moon Moon Singh, a promising actor of contemporary Indian theatre.
It was interesting to note how the different Asian dances and martial arts (butoh, contemporary dance, ballet, kalaripayattu, Thai classical dance, among them) blended seamlessly to create a new form.
If there was a standout, it had to be the petite Moon Moon. Her acting, dancing and exuberance were a delight to watch as she switched from one character to another.
Sirosook played her best role as the seductive Draupadi when she gracefully manoeuvred her way to fool her suitor.
A major flaw, however, was in the accent, intonation, and diction of the performers, which often made it hard to make out what they were saying.
And 32 characters were a few too many to digest – even those familiar with the epic lost track of some of the characters along the way.
Nevertheless, Koike has to be applauded, for it is definitely not easy to tie in so many characters. We eagerly await the third instalment.