Review: ‘Shun-kin’ knows the art of seduction


Rarely has the dance of shadows, the interplay of light and dark, been put to better storytelling effect in the theater than in the extraordinary “Shun-kin,” a collaboration between the London-based company Complicite and Japan’s Setagaya Public Theatre that brings to the stage a curious 1933 tale of love and sadomasochism by the Japanese writer Jun’ichiro Tanizaki.

Presented by the Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA and one of the high points so far for me of the now in full swing Radar L.A. festival, the production runs at the Freud Playhouse only through Sunday, giving you exactly three chances to see what is for me the most exquisitely staged work of the year.

By exquisite I don’t merely mean visually seductive, though that definition holds true for this experience. The beauty runs deeper in a piece conducted like a darkly surreal ritual, in which gesture alternates with restraint, speech with silence, illumination with the pitch of night, so that by the end it becomes unclear which is more real, what your senses discern or what your fantasy imagines.


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The aesthetic, in other words, is perfectly aligned with the thematic preoccupations of the author. Like any great work derived from a valuable literary source, “Shun-kin” is a new entity, at once beholden to the original (“A Portrait of Shunkin,” infused with other Tanizaki writings) and beautifully autonomous — a balance that proves elusive more often than not but is arrived at here with what can only be described as bold delicacy.

Directed by Complicite co-founder Simon McBurney in a design scheme inspired by Tanizaki’s essay “In Praise of Shadows,” the production revolves around the relationship of a wealthy young girl, Shun-kin, who was blinded in childhood under mysterious circumstances, and her slightly older male attendant, Sasuke, who has devoted himself to this beautiful and imperious creature.

The sexuality of their attachment becomes influenced by Shun-kin’s musical education. She is studying the shamisen, the three-stringed Japanese instrument, under the guidance of a severe master teacher. When Sasuke begins to teach himself to play, Shun-kin takes on the role of sadistic mentor and the two discover the pleasures of pain, one inflicting, the other receiving, in a bond that is as perverse as it is poetic.

There’s nothing lurid or base in the presentation, which is stylized with all the meticulousness of a traditional tea ceremony, albeit one held with the lights on low and violent noises routinely disrupting the formalized civility. Our moral discomfort is further assuaged by the way the story is refracted through other narratives, allowing us to appreciate the work as a fable rather than as an ethical test.

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The story of Shun-kin and Sasuke is introduced first by an 80-year-old man who greets the audience from his father’s grave. Plunged into contemplation of the vanished past, he imagines Tanizaki writing the tale in the year of his birth.

Tanizaki haunts the production, sometimes as a ghostly detective, other times as a disembodied voice. He’s seen scribbling but he’s also searching, fact and fiction completely entwined, one leading the other to a deeper truth.

A comical layer is added with the modern day story of a radio actress making a studio recording of the Shun-kin tale while dealing with her own tempestuous love affair with a younger man. The connections may grow a tad explicit at the production’s end, but her heated cellphone conversations offer droll contemporary counterpoints to the Tanizaki work she’s narrating.

These shifting frames admittedly make for a hazy start. Indeed, it took me time to find my footing, but the production never wants us to get too comfortable in this dreamlike realm, where certainty is an illusion and storytelling is the closest any of us can come to the truth.

Complicite is renowned for staging literary works (“The Street of Crocodiles” and, also with Setagaya Public Theatre, “The Elephant Vanishes”) in a manner that doesn’t overwhelm with illustration but rather seduces audiences into an imaginative collaboration. Here the mise-en-scène — with its deft design by Merle Hensel and Rumi Matsui, hallucinatory lighting by Paul Anderson, unobtrusive video by Finn Ross and hypnotic music by Honjoh Hidetaro — creates a space that is kaleidoscopic in its possibilities.

But none of this would be as resonant were it not for the excellence of the acting company, which made me somehow feel able to understand Japanese even when I wasn’t reading the projected English surtitles. The puppetry, courtesy of Blind Summit Theatre, is every bit as eloquent, and I mean this as the highest compliment when I say that it’s not always easy to tell when Shun-kin is being portrayed by a puppet or a living actor, for in both cases her life is depicted with fierce aesthetic grace.


Images that will haunt me: a fluttering white piece of paper representing a lark flying up to the sky, a bedroom scene in which the puppet Shun-kin’s body parts separate in seething ecstasy, and the constant sway of hands, soothing, groping, smacking, serving — hands entreating as they test the boundary between lover and beloved.


Where: Freud Playhouse at Macgowan Hall, 245 Charles E. Young Drive E., UCLA campus, L.A.

When: 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. Ends Sunday.

Tickets: $50-$85

Contact: (310) 825-2101;

Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes