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MY HEROES / A dark samurai fantasy to be revived onstage

The main cast members of the new theatrical production of “Makai Tensho”

By Mishio Suzuki / Yomiuri Shimbun Senior SpecialistIn 2015, I wrote a book on the history of superheroes in tokusatsu sci-fi action dramas. I began the introduction with: “It’s the times that decide tokusatsu heroes.” New tokusatsu superheroes appear every year. When you look back on them, you realize that each one mirrors the times and the society of the day, which often tells you that their arrivals were no coincidence but a necessity.

So there must be a need right now for a theatrical revival about a truly dark hero.

The play “Makai Tensho” will open at the Hakataza theater in Fukuoka tomorrow. Directed by Yukihiko Tsutsumi, the production commemorates the 65th anniversary of Nippon TV and will move to Meijiza theater in Tokyo in November and to Umeda Arts Theater in Osaka in December.

The original “Makai Tensho” — the title roughly means “incarnation in the demonic world” — is a period fantasy novel by Futaro Yamada. It’s been adapted into films and theatrical shows several times, the most famous of which is a 1981 movie directed by Kinji Fukasaku. Starring Kenji Sawada and Shinichi (Sonny) Chiba, the film was a huge hit in Japan.

The story draws inspiration from the Shimabara rebellion in the 17th century, which is known mostly as a notorious chapter of the Tokugawa shogunate’s persecution of Christians. After the rebellion, Amakusa Shiro, the beheaded leader of the Catholic rebels, arises as an evil spirit. Amakusa and spirits of others who also died in bitterness try to take revenge on this side of the world, but master swordsman Yagyu Jubei and company rise up together and fight against the evil force.

In the new theater production, Takaya Kamikawa will play Jubei, and Junpei Mizobata will portray dark hero Amakusa. Jubei’s father, Yagyu Munenori, will be played by Ken Matsudaira, famed for starring as the samurai lord in the popular TV drama “Abarenbo Shogun.” Yuko Asano is Yodo-dono, the famous concubine of feudal lord Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who also rises from death as a member of the demonic force, and Saki Takaoka will play Amakusa’s elder sister.

The gorgeous casting is truly fitting for the anniversary.

The 1981 film also featured Hiroyuki Sanada, whose popularity at the time was like that of an idol singer. When I saw the film as a girl, I felt very sad when Sanada’s character fell into the dark side — I remember I was basically rooting for the human side led by Chiba, even though the otherworldly beauty of the evil force members took my breath away.

I contributed an article in the play’s program brochure, for which I interviewed all 40 members of the cast. As I listened to their stories, I realized that I now sympathized more with the dark heroes in the story. Of course, I never wish for the world to come to an end; ultimately I cheer for Jubei on the “human team.” Still, I deeply feel the bitterness of the evil force members and their enmity over being at the mercy of the convenience of the ruler of the time.

Have I changed? Or has society changed? It’s an interesting question, along with the fact that the production has been planned in this age and time.

I’d also like to call attention to the fact that the cast includes several actors who have played tokusatsu superheroes, such as Atsushi Maruyama, Ryo Matsuda, Ryota Murai and Wataru Kuriyama.

I will watch tomorrow’s premiere performance and see what has brought “Makai Tensho” back to life in the 21st century.

Suzuki is a Yomiuri Shimbun senior specialist and an expert on tokusatsu superhero films and dramas.Speech

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