On the fiftieth anniversary of Yukio Mishima’s death, the Tokyo Ballet produced its latest version of “M,” choreographed by Maurice Béjart. After a generally terrible year for the arts, to see a nearly sold out production at the Kunio Maekawa-designed Tokyo Bunka Kaikan was extremely positive and served as a reminder that people need to see, feel and participate in art.
First created for the Tokyo Ballet in 1993, “M” acts as Béjart’s symbol of his own fascination with Mishima and Japan, a country he spent a lot of time visiting and admiring. Unfortunately, the jury is out if ballet is the most suitable art form to tell the story of Mishima’s troubling and conflicted life. The complex nature of Mishima’s story, an aesthete, nationalist, homosexual, married man, father, patriot, lover of Western literature, his is the story of antithesis and one which ends, in 1970, in ritual seppuku after a disgraced and failed attempt at a coup d’état. “M,” then, doesn’t quite succeed in visual storytelling and the production is, at times, absolute nonsense.
There’s something about this production which seems dated, out of touch and monotonous. The set and costume designs seem antiquated, like something from a 1980s MTV video and the few visual set-pieces which are pulled off are limited. The production captures Mishima’s obsession with traditional Japanese theatre forms such as Noh and Kabuki and the use of music and masks throughout the performance is well executed. The technical skills of the performers are never questioned but the general direction appeared stiff and unimaginative. A little vague and misdirected. The series of bodybuilding (Mishima was an avid bodybuilder) movements were well implemented and his complex relationship with his grandmother illustrated with aplomb. The other elements to his life were staged unclearly or too literally. The homoeroticism, conflict between his sexuality and his married life, his outrageous narcissism shown here through a giant circular mirror hanging above the stage looked stylistically out of place.
Perhaps, this particular production’s flaw is that it doesn’t know what it wants to be or achieve. And more importantly, it’s possible that a theatrical performance would have been a better and more consistent manner in which to show the intricacies of Mishima’s life. Ballet may not be the correct artistic form for this particular story.
After each stage of his life was represented, a performer would step to the side of the stage and draw a stroke in chalk on a blackboard for the Japanese kanji for death “shi” or 死. Of course, Mishima was obsessed with death and his own ending, however this trope seemed too literal and uninspired. His obsession with the sea was illustrated well with rippling white sheets on the stage and the denouement using a giant piece of red string (representing blood and his death) intertwining the performers was a nice trick but couldn’t save this production from being humdrum.
After each set change and as the lights dimmed it seemed that some of the audience members used it as an opportunity to escape. The seats in the upper levels thinned out as the production (which was only 1h 40 minutes long) continued and the audience grew more frustrated.
With the circular nature of “M,” the beginning reflected the end and vice versa, the mise-en-scène and tableaux vivants were effective. Rows of “Japanese” women wooed and enticed a young Mishima. This was staged to portray Mishima’s relationship with his female family members and his sadistic grandparent who had a profound effect on his life and literary output.
Mishima’s founding and involvement in the far right, militia Tatenokai (which unsuccessfully attempted to inspire the Japanese Self Defense Force to overthrow the 1947 constitution in return for the reinstatement of the Emperor) which was staged beautifully with training exercises flowing effortlessly and music from Wagner, Satie and Debussy (amongst others) complementing the action adequately.
All in all, then, Maurice Béjart’s “M” falls short and appears as conflicted and flawed as its subject. Misguided, dated and confused, it was the wrong choice for the opening of the ballet season in Tokyo. Perhaps the Tokyo Ballet would be better to approach Mishima in a fresher and more contemporary manner in future.
Tokyo Bunka Kaikan, a beautiful example of modernist architecture is the perfect setting for ballet. The building caretakers and the Tokyo Ballet were very insistent on presenting the production of “M” as being extra safe considering the ensuing pandemic. Attendees were made to wear masks and disinfect their hands before entering in addition to passing through a temperature check. After that initial processing, things took a turn for the worse. Japanese cinemas have introduced a roughly fifty percent capacity rule with at least one or two empty seats between people. Tokyo Bunka Kaikan failed to do so and the first few floors were packed with people herded into seating with non-family and friends. This didn’t inspire confidence and as the two people who coughed continually throughout the production were never asked to leave, it gave the feeling that the whole initial checking process was one giant charade. Japan has been fairly lucky concerning coronavirus numbers and as Tokyo and other cities open up and events begin to be held once again, this kind of event organization is essentially playing with fire.