A Shakespearean Glance at the People and Issues of the Day.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

A Japanese Comedy of Errors


The Comedy of Errors features two sets of identical twin brothers. One set are both named Antipholus, and the other set, who are servants to the first, are both named Dromio. Implausible? It wouldn't be to the retired heavyweight champion of the world and current barbecue grill salesman George Foreman, who named all five or so of his sons George.

The two Antipholuses are the sons of Aegeon, a merchant from Syracuse (we are in ancient Greece, even though half the characters have renaissance Italian names, reflecting either pure insouciance or pure laziness on Shakespeare's part). Anyhow, one Antipholus and one servant Dromio are separated from Aegeon and the other Antipholus and Dromio when they drift away during a storm on the Mediterranean (you may want to read obscured as obscure-ed. It's more Shakespearean that way, and more fun).

Aeg: "A league from Epidamnum had we sailed
Before the always wind-obeying deep
Gave any tragic instance of our harm.
But longer did we not retain much hope;
For what obscured light the heavens did grant
Did but convey unto our fearful minds
A doubtful warrant of immediate death…".

A three hour cruise. The lost pair land in Ephesus and establish a new life there. The other Antipholus, once he has grown up, leaves Syracuse to travel the world looking for his brother. Eventually he finds himself in Ephesus. And that's about where the play begins.

Of course what I'm really attempting to write about is the casting of Memoirs of a Geisha. Memoirs is the movie adaptation of a celebrated book that purports to reveal hidden dimensions of the world of the geisha, those Japanese consorts whose training and tradition date back to the Edo period, the formative era extending from the 1620s to the 1850s when Japan remained closed to the world. The cinematic puppeteers in Los Angeles decided to portray this quintessentially Japanese world by casting Chinese actors and actresses in the three lead roles, relegating the Japanese actors to the remaining minor parts. This has created a bit of a stir in Japan, and even in China.

In order to provide bardseye's view of the matter, we will return to Ephesus, where the Syracusan Antipholus is being mistaken by everyone for his brother. Even his brother's wife, thinking him to be her husband, welcomes him home for dinner, where he duly falls in love with her sister, Luciana. He addresses Luciana, but he could as easily be speaking for the Chinese actors in Memoirs of a Geisha as they address their American director (Rob Marshall), the man who has asked them to incarnate the heart and soul of a treasured Japanese tradition:

S. Ant.: "Teach me, dear creature, how to think and speak;
Lay open to my earthy-gross conceit,
Smothered in errors, feeble, shallow, weak,
The folded meaning of your words' deceit.
Against my soul's pure truth why labor you
To make it wander in an unknown field?
Are you a god? Would you create me new?
Transform me then, and to your power I'll yield."

Can an American director teach Chinese actors how to think and speak as Japanese members of a reclusive ancient courtesan tradition? Why does Mr. Marshall labor against their souls' pure truth, to make them wander in an unknown field?

In the 1960's it was reasonable to introduce theretofore unknown Japanese culture to the West through such devices as the Beni Hana restaurant chain, which featured faux, not to say ersatz, Japanese chefs performing acrobatic feats at the customers' tables with their food. In the context of the times, this was practically diplomatic. But forty years have passed since then and one would think that the times had changed. Here the Syracusan Antipholus reflects on his plight, as must the Chinese actors (with the sister standing in for Marshall and Hollywood), on this directorial comedy of errors:

S. Ant.: "....But her fair sister,
Possessed with such a gentle sovereign grace,
Of such enchanting presence and discourse,
Hath almost made me traitor to myself.
But, lest myself be guilty to self-wrong,
I'll stop mine ears against the mermaid's song."

Hollywood of course dominates the global market for cinema, or more accurately the market for global cinema (India's Bollywood is nothing to sneeze at, but is as yet primarily for domestic consumption). But if US moviemakers are going to presume to present to the world the key cultural treasures of other nations, they owe to those nations a far greater sensibility, and greater sensitivity, than they so far seem willing or able to exhibit.

And by the way, are these really the same moviemaking celebrities who are decrying what they call a bullying, culturally arrogant American assertiveness in Iraq? Aren't they exhibiting exactly what they criticize?

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