Edinburgh Fringe Review: Hanafuda Denki (A Tale of Fantastic Traditional Playing Cards)

In the world of Hanafuda Denki the dead seem to show just as much life as the living. Not only do they run funeral parlours and help people on their journey to the underworld but they sing and dance too, with morbid and energetic glee.  They are born entertainers and we are all apparently born dead. If this is sounding surreal already, it is only a dash of the madness to come. Perhaps the fact that Hanafuda Denki is the renowned Japanese, avant-garde writer Shuji Tereyama’s 1967 update of Bertolt Brecht’s 1928 Threepenny Opera, which in turn was an update of John Gay’s 1728 The Beggar’s Opera, goes someway to explain this bizarreness.

In truth, there are few similarities between this play and Brecht’s work, beyond the fact that they are both satirical musicals dealing with the underclass in Capitalist society, morality and death. Hanafuda Denki moves away from the Brechtian emphasis on politics; it is more of a nihilist critique of society than a socialist one.  One pivotal plot line is nicked from the original: that of a daughter falling in love with and marrying a man whom her parents not only disapprove of, but who is also an infamous criminal. The parents of Brecht’s Polly Peachum control the business of the city’s beggars and prostitutes, here they run a funeral parlour and are, in fact, dead. So is their daughter, maybe… its quite confusing. But don’t let that put you off – the exceptional ensemble cast are so entertaining that it doesn’t really matter whether you follow the plot completely.

The daughter’s love is still living and it is this that mostly attracts her parents’ ire; their view is that death is far superior to life. Hence, we see the father and his creepy, crazy staff trying to convince customers to die, often in song and dance format. In one delightfully impish number, a customer is invited to choose his kind of death from a long list including such kinds as “song death” and “erotic death”. The customer keeps shouting “money!” – he wants something even more spectacular for his dosh; the frustrated funeral director eventually grabs the wad of notes and chokes the customer with them, ironically suggesting that we get what we want in death.

The musical numbers swirl between Japanese classical music and modern pop songs, 1920’s American show tunes and Weimar Republic cabaret, all with lashings of satire and kooky choreography. As the show goes on the music does get a little loud and relentless. We are reminded somewhat of cringey karaoke whenever the microphone is used, though this is clearly director Saori Aoki’s intention. It also heightens the Brechtian alienation effect – which allows us to step back from empathy and critically reflect, in this case, on the ridiculous nature of humanity’s lust for life and death.

The use of gesture is so exquisitely clear that it seems hardly to matter that the performance is in Japanese (there are English surtitles). Some symbolism is lost in translation though; at one point, two characters reveal brightly coloured paintings on their backs (I believe it is a reference to classic Japanese playing-cards) and discuss their meanings – this went completely over my head. The show also does lose its way about halfway through and both the action and the message become a lot less clear. However, the costumes and makeup are sensational, a colourful clash of East and West, contributing significantly to this project of making nihilism fun. Ryuzanji Company have performed all over the world but this is their UK debut. I would very much like to see them return.

**** – 4/5 stars

Hanafuda Denki (A Tale of Fantastic Traditional Playing Cards) is playing at C venues as part of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival until 18 August. For more information and tickets, see the Edinburgh Fringe website.