'Dogugaeshi' – Basil Twist | London International Mime Festival
Candles dance, a white fox smirks and seemingly endless images meld into each other, as a unique and beautiful form of Japanese pre-modern theatre is recreated and destroyed in the space of an hour. Basil Twist’s 'Dogugaeshi' is an accomplished and visually entrancing show but one that could benefit from the guiding eye of a dramaturg and more rehearsal to achieve its full potential.
Twist, a New York-based puppeteer, has taken the now nearly extinct Japanese theatrical form, dogugaeshi, and partially recreated it, partially reimagined it, to make what is an aesthetically rich but slightly thematically thin show. In origin, dogugaeshi is a display of sliding scenic panels that quickly transition between different images and settings. As layers of screens are removed, a great banqueting hall from an Edo period castle is slowly revealed. These displays were originally used as backdrops in ningyo joruri performances but later became loved as theatrical performances in their own right. Today, in Japan, you can only see dogugaeshi regularly in the Awaji Ningyo Joruri Theatre on the island of Awaji, where, alongside ningyo joruri performances, dogugaeshi-lite is played for passing tourists.
Twist has done much more than just replicate a technique. He blends the sliding painted screens with shadow puppets and a complex and continually shifting soundtrack. The use of gauze and shadow adds an extra depth to the otherwise planar stage and allows for some narrative sequences that describe the practice of dogugaeshi to be played out.
The overall effect is mesmeric as we slide from the diminutive opening sequence, a live re-enactment of the black and white film that first inspired Twist, through to the creation of a great Edo-period banqueting hall and then on to its violent and cataclysmic destruction, symbolising the arrival of modernity in Japan and the rejection of older culture. Following this destruction we are presented a rather predictable view of contemporary Japan as a land of skyscrapers and neon lights. The show ends with an extended recreation of a dogugaeshi performance leading us back through the layers of the hall via landmarks such as Mount Fuji to a beautiful final image that needs to be seen not described.
Woven throughout all of this is a fox hand-puppet that Twist has borrowed from the ningyo joruri play: the Nine-Tailed Fox. The fox pops up in various gently amusing sequences but Twist has done little to explore the specifics of this puppet and its narrative origins. Like his depiction of the modernisation of Japan, Twist’s response to the fox is largely aesthetic. It is only when the show includes the voices of others that we start to delve deeper into the former world of dogugaeshi. This is most effectively realised in a video clip of elderly Japanese women reminiscing about seeing dogugaeshi in their youth. It is nearly the only moment in the show that allows the focus to shift away from Twist’s voice.
Despite this being a show made by an American about Japanese culture, Twist makes no attempt to acknowledge his cultural positioning in relation to this highly specific Japanese theatre form. This seems like a missed opportunity to explore an interesting relationship that would have added some much needed thematic content to the visual miasma. It also makes for slightly uncomfortable viewing as we watch an American artist take a Japanese theatre form and funding and proceed to sell us a distinctly aestheticised vision of a Japanese performing art, devoid of its cultural context.
Further, for a show that revels in style over substance, that style is often more carefree and slapdash than it should be. Both the design and manipulation of the screens vary hugely in quality. Too often screens juddered slightly awkwardly into place. Given that this show is now twelve years old, there have been plenty of opportunities for it to be reworked and rehearsed to death. While it is a genuinely enjoyable experience and well worth seeing, it leaves one with a strong feeling of wanting more.