Noir meets Noh in Tokio Confidential, an original musical with book, music, and lyrics by Eric Schorr, an American with a deep respect for and appreciation of Japanese culture. Schorr is especially fascinated by ukiyo-e woodblock prints and Noh theater, both of which he richly weaves into the storyline and the set of this limited engagement work currently running at Atlantic Stage 2.
Set in 1879, Tokio Confidential follows the story of Isabella Archer (Jill Paice), a Civil War widow still filled with grief several years after the death of her husband, Ralph (Benjamin McHugh). Guided by Ralph’s spirit, Isabella travels from the US to Japan, where Ralph worked before they married. Remembering his fascinating stories about this strange, faraway land, she wanted to find the world of Hokusai and Hiroshige, the two most famous names in ukiyo-e.
Upon her arrival, she meets Ernest Osmond (Jeff Kready), an American man whose goal is to preserve Japanese art and prevent the country’s traditions from becoming entirely replaced by Western culture. “I’m trying to save Japan from itself,” he quips.
Ernest generously takes Isabella in and shows her around, introducing her to the things her husband loved about Japan. When Isabella sees an elaborate tattoo on the back of a rickshaw driver, with vivid color and symbolic meaning, she is intrigued. Ernest explains that while the emperor of Japan has banned tattoos for native Japanese, the law does not apply to foreigners. With his ties to the Japanese art world and his knowledge of the seedier pleasure quarters of Tokyo, Ernest offers to introduce Isabella to a talented tattoo artist, Horiyoshi (Mel Maghuyop).
Horiyoshi has lost work because of the ban, but he is reluctant to tattoo Isabella at first. He relents when she tells him what she wants – Kannon, the goddess of mercy who helps those caught in difficult earthly realms to achieve salvation – and Isabella makes a decision that will change her life.
The process for a full-body tattoo takes months, and Horiyoshi and Isabella agree to weekly sessions. Isabella’s mood lightens with each week, as if the color from Horiyoshi’s needles is bringing color to her life. She has found the Japan that captivated her late husband, and she has found love. The closeness of the tattooing brings intimacy to the artist and his human canvas. But the tattoo that brought Isabella color and love has also put her life in danger.
Schorr incorporates elements of Noh into Tokio Confidential with its structure, theme, and music. There is even a small piece of a Noh play within the musical, which is “done in a modern, non-literal way,” says Schorr.
The Noh play within Tokio Confidential mirrors Ralph’s situation as a soldier killed in battle. This Noh play-within-a-musical is of the warrior genre, which Schorr says “tends to be about the Civil Wars in Japan in the 12th century . . . and the subjects are famous warriors. In Buddhism, if you kill somebody, you are assigned to this ‘warrior hell,’ and your punishment is to be constantly fighting. You don’t get to be reincarnated. The only way to break that cycle is somebody intervenes and basically prays for you to get out of this hell.”
The minimalist set creates the atmosphere of a Japanese teahouse with its tatami mats, river rocks, and sliding screens. Images of ukiyo-e prints, Japanese designs, and scenes of Japan are periodically projected onto the screens, offering support to the characters’ dialogue. Even the music, which is played on Western instruments, has Japanese elements.
Part history of the times, part tutorial on ukiyo-e, Noh, and Buddhism, Tokio Confidential is a special kind of musical experience. But it doesn’t feel like a lecture. Even with the Japanese touches, Tokio Confidential is very much a traditional musical.
“I didn’t want to write a Noh play, but I wanted to write a piece that was heavily influenced thematically by Noh,” says Schorr.
What Schorr achieved is a beautiful story that will leave the audience influenced by Japanese culture.