HANAFUDA DENKI Review – The Liveliest Dance of the Dead

A woman dressed in mournful clothing cries in the audience, saying between her sobs that she “adores a good funeral.” Meanwhile, white-faced, ghost-like people play cards onstage. Soon the Dance of the Dead will begin, as Ryuzanji Company brings HANAFUDA DENKI to life at HERE.

A Japanese musical comedy by the prolific avant-garde playwright, poet, writer, and photographer Shuji Terayama, HANAFUDA DENKI is lively, funny, and more than a little confusing. But the entertainment factor is through the roof as it introduces New York audiences to Tokyo Underground Theater.

HANAFUDA DENKI, Ryuzanji Company, Show Ryuzanji, Saori Aoki, Tokyo Underground Theater, Japanese musical, comedy, HERE, NYC, Crossing Jamaica Avenue, performance

HANAFUDA DENKI by Ryuzanji Company. Photo ©Kenji Mori

Set in Tokyo during the Taisho era (1921-1926), the musical revolves around Danjuro, an undertaker for the House of the Dead, and his family and assorted cohorts. Not only is Danjuro surrounded by dead people; he is dead, too. As are his bearded wife, Ohaka (which happens to be the honorific term for “gravesite”), and the cast of characters around him. Danjuro is in the business of death and “pre-death,” even helping customers decide how and when to die.

Also in a pre-death state is Danjuro’s daughter, Karuta, who further complicates Danjuro’s . . . umm, life? by falling in love with a living man, master thief Kitaro of the Graveyard. Wanting his daughter to be fully dead, Danjuro dispatches a handsome young dead man to marry Karuta, bringing her to the world of the dead and preventing her from marrying Kitaro. Then all kinds of crazy things happen with men turning into women and women turning into men. And everyone sings and dances.

HANAFUDA DENKI, Ryuzanji Company, Show Ryuzanji, Saori Aoki, Tokyo Underground Theater, Japanese musical, comedy, HERE, NYC, Crossing Jamaica Avenue, performance

Show Ryuzanji (with glasses) in HANAFUDA DENKI. Photo ©Kenji Mori

Following the storyline isn’t requisite to enjoying the show, however. “The point is it’s a love story,” says Show Ryuzanji, actor and Artistic Director of Ryuzanji Company. “It’s about breaking free.”

To Show Ryuzanji, Tokyo Underground Theater is also about breaking free from the hierarchical society and putting social activism and criticism at the core of their artistic endeavors. (Click here to read JC•NYC’s interview with Show Ryuzanji.)

Ryuzanji Company toured HANAFUDA DENKI in 2012, receiving an Overall Excellence Award for Design at the New York International Fringe Festival and the Pick of the Fringe at the Victoria Fringe Festival. By bringing HANAFUDA DENKI back to North America – they performed in Montreal from January 14 through 18 – Ryuzanji Company gives Westerners a rare opportunity to see Tokyo’s underground scene and to learn about the work of Terayama, whom Show Ryuzanji calls “a pioneer of Japanese counterculture.”

HANAFUDA DENKI is a little brash, a little bawdy, and with a lot of underground spirit. It’s like a Japanese game show, a no-holds-barred affair in an otherwise reserved society. The ensemble cast sounded terrific as a chorus, and Makoto Honda’s music will have you humming the final score long after you’ve left HERE. Director Saori “Sabo” Aoki also did a fabulous job with the costumes and makeup, giving her dead characters a fresh look. And creepy eyes. Incidentally, Aoki is the crying woman in the audience before the show begins.

She adores a good funeral, and we adore the Dance of the Dead.

HANAFUDA DENKI – The Dance of the Dead is produced by Ryuzanji Company and co-sponsored by Crossing Jamaica Avenue. There are four remaining performances of HANAFUDA DENKI at HERE. It is performed in Japanese with English supertitles. To purchase tickets, please visit HERE’s website.

HANAFUDA DENKI, Ryuzanji Company, Show Ryuzanji, Saori Aoki, Tokyo Underground Theater, Japanese musical, comedy, HERE, NYC, Crossing Jamaica Avenue, performance

HANAFUDA DENKI by Ryuzanji Company. Photo ©Kenji Mori