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AKUTAGAWA opens with the construction of a puppet. As the eponymous author writes feverishly, pausing only to puff on his cigarette and steal sips from his glass of whiskey, two stagehands work with equal assiduity, assembling both the central characters and the settings that they inhabit before the audience’s eyes. It is the perfect introduction to this story about storytelling—that sacred act of pure invention that brings such exquisite joy… and such excruciating sorrow.

The play explores Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s (tragically short) life via adaptations of five of his most acclaimed literary masterpieces: Rashomon, Hell Screen, The Dragon, Toshishun, and Kappa. It doesn’t settle for merely depicting him as the architect of these narratives, however; he’s also a participant in their plots, interacting with the protagonists and influencing their actions. In one scene, for example, he chuckles mischievously as he encourages an ugly monk to play a practical joke on the villagers that cruelly mocked his appearance; in another, he dons a grotesque, demonic mask in order to taunt and torment an aspiring wizard. He weeps at the suffering that he causes with every stroke of his pen, for the words that stain the page convey the anguish that burdens his own soul.

AKUTAGAWA is an unforgettable multimedia experience, combining traditional kuruma ningyo puppetry, animation (evocative of Lotte Reiniger’s classic “paper doll” style), music, dance, slapstick comedy, and even benshi narration into a thoroughly captivating meditation on art, craftsmanship, and the spirit of creativity. I’m glad that I was able to catch the final performance at Japan Society. I wish that it was possible to revisit it whenever the mood might strike me, but that’s the nature of live theater: its magic is inherently transient.

And there is undeniable beauty in that brevity.

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