It was serendipitous, Eric Schorr’s connection to Japan. Without having prior knowledge about the culture or a strong desire to see the country, Schorr, a New York-based composer and lyricist, accompanied a friend on a whim. Schorr was “blown away” by the people he encountered and the culture he experienced there.
Upon returning to New York, Schorr fueled his newfound passion for Japan by watching Akira Kurosawa’s black-and-white, post-World War II movies and taking language classes at Japan Society. Now, ten years after that first trip to Japan, Schorr is three weeks away from seeing his new musical, Tokio Confidential, hit the stage.
The play is a result of years of research and writing by Schorr, who also composed the score for Frog Kiss and The Doctor’s Wife. With Tokio Confidential, he blends his interests in a variety of aspects of Japanese culture – particularly ukiyo-e and Noh – to tell the story of a woman who travels from America to Japan in search of lost love.
Schorr set the play in the year 1879, during the Meiji Era and 25 years after Commodore Perry sailed through Japan’s isolation.
“Japan is literally in the throes of Westernization,” Schorr says of the time. “The period is very interesting to me because there was this area of conflict where Japanese were westernizing to a large extent, but also there were many people who were into preserving Japanese culture. So there was this historical period of tension between becoming Western but also preserving Japanese identity.”
Part of that identity – at least for the laborers of Shitamachi (downtown) – was the full-body tattoo. Inspired by ukiyo-e prints, the iconography of these elaborate, intricate, and colorful designs had symbolic meaning. For instance, Schorr explains, “Firemen would wear a tattoo of a dragon because a dragon is a sort of water god, and if you’re going to fight a fire, you want the protection of the water god literally on you.”
Wanting to present a modern face to countries in the West, Emperor Meiji banned tattooing for Japanese nationals, declaring the practice barbaric. However, the ban didn’t include foreigners.
Enter Isabella Archer, Tokio Confidential’s protagonist, a Civil War widow whose husband had business dealings in Japan and spoke fondly of the country. Still having difficulty dealing with her grief 15 years after her husband’s death, Isabella takes the long journey from San Francisco to Japan in search of her husband’s spirit. What she finds is an amazing world of beauty through the work of a famed Japanese tattoo artist, and she decides to get a full-body tattoo, transforming herself into a ukiyo-e woodblock print. In the process, she falls in love with the artist as his artwork brings the color and personality back to her life.
A love story with noir twists, Tokio Confidential is Schorr’s Eastern version of Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady. Semi-autobiographical in the sense that it tells a person’s first experience with a foreign culture, Schorr also combines two very different forms of Japanese art. “One’s very elitist (Noh theater), and one’s very popular (ukiyo-e),” says Schorr, “but in the play they work together.”
When Schorr began writing Tokio Confidential more than five years ago, he received a grant from the Asian Cultural Council. The fellowship allowed him to live in Tokyo and travel throughout Japan for nearly four months, and he immersed himself in researching the time period and attending Noh plays. He later returned for a Noh writing workshop, as he wanted Tokio Confidential to have a similar structure, theme, and musical elements as Noh theater.
With Tokio Confidential, Schorr wants to appeal to a wide range of audiences from people who already have an appreciation of Japanese culture to those who are unfamiliar with the country, as he was ten years ago. He is also curious to see how the Japanese community in New York reacts to an American’s interpretation of Japanese culture. An American who pays homage to a culture he loves with his labor of love.
Tokio Confidential runs from Sunday, February 5 through Sunday, February 19 at Atlantic Theater Company Stage 2 located at 330 West 16th Street (between 8th and 9th Avenues). Shows times are 8:00 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday with matinees at 3:00 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. Tickets are $45 and can be purchased at ticketcentral.com or by calling 212.279.4200.
For more information, visit TokioConfidential.com.