Kwaidan: Three Japanese Ghost Stories

Ping Chong

at the Museum of Contemporary Art, October 3 and 4

By Carol Burbank

Avant-garde theater isn’t generally known for its nostalgia. Alienation from traditional storytelling fuels most postmodernists’ dismantling of cherished cultural traditions as they reveal a bitterly clever sense of humor about the dislocations of the late 20th century. Watching the Wooster Group’s assaultive techno grids or Goat Island’s abstract, precise dance spectacles, we expect the avant-garde to reveal the postmodern cyborg haunting our cultural fantasies. If the question of holiness ever comes up, it’s usually a joke–a sitting duck deconstructed for our viewing pleasure.

But Ping Chong, a Chinese-American artist based in New York City for the past 20 years, has consistently resisted the postmodern impulse to set all icons on auto-destruct. His approach is often refreshing, but it’s also sometimes resulted in blunted or romanticized messages. His early collaborations with Meredith Monk and his best site-specific installations and multimedia pieces, highlighting and sustaining the tense ambiguities of identity and privilege, explore new ways of telling primal stories of self-creation. Chong’s method is to cite cliches and theatrical conventions, then build a new framework to reexamine our relationship with those conventions. His work has its characteristic collaged deconstructions and reconstructions, combining dance, language play, and video to demonstrate the contradictions of cross-cultural modern identities.

Last weekend, after a 15-year absence from Chicago, Chong showcased his latest collaborative project, Kwaidan: Three Japanese Ghost Stories, at the Museum of Contemporary Art. A stunning reinterpretation of classic Japanese tales, it’s designed, he says in a program note, as “a respite and a reminder of what we have sacrificed in a world of commodification at the end of the 20th century.” This it is, awakening a nostalgic longing for the quiet simplicity of a Zen monk’s life. In the process, however, Chong ignores some of the contradictions he’s often highlighted in earlier work about Chinese and Japanese stereotypes.

This piece’s entertaining but ambiguously presented orientalism effectively sets the chaos of Western urban sprawl against the spiritual regimen of Buddhist Japan. But Chong and his collaborators–master puppeteer Jon Ludwig of the Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta and Japanese designer Mitsuru Ishii–have adopted the romanticized view of rigorous philosophical traditions reflected in 19th-century journalist Lafcadio Hearn’s versions of these stories, which Chong reports he loved as a child. It’s an accomplishment for these tales re-created for Western consumption to lead us to question our own commercialism. But presenting a 19th-century American’s version of Japanese life as authentic has repercussions later, when the stories are explicitly placed in a Western context and lose some of their transformative power.

Kwaidan’s sentimental, nostalgic rejection of Western capitalism is perhaps exaggerated by the skillful puppetry, which allows Chong and his collaborators to create an impressive fantasy world. Although there are some human actors, most of the stars are puppets so beautifully animated that they take on the power of an alternative reality–in some ways a cinematic reality, as changes in visual scale and point of view make the stage as large as a planet or as small as a monk’s garden. Yet the intimate Museum of Contemporary Art space gave the experience immediacy and emotion, conveying the fragility of these stories about the connections between visible and invisible worlds, ancient and modern mysteries. If Chong intended any critique of the original texts’ orientalism, it’s obscured by the pleasure of seeing magnificent puppets illuminating a mythic world.

Chong’s three ghost stories at first seem too gentle to be unsettling or even theatrical, but his exquisite stagecraft gives them a startling mystery. “Jikininki” is the story of a fearless monk’s meeting with a spirit doomed to eat the flesh of the dead. “Miminashi-Hoichi” is the story of a blind musician bewitched into playing his biwa night after night for the restless spirits of a massacred clan. Chong takes the greatest artistic license with “The Story of O-tei,” a tale of reincarnation he updates to a comparatively chaotic westernized Japan. Each story emphasizes the results of a life (or death) out of balance and promises a return to peace if proper behavior is resumed. But the beauty of the performance obscures the irony of this promise in the modern world; only in the final story does the impossibility of balance become clear. It seems that Chong is setting us up to absorb lessons like rapt children–lessons that will fail us. In the remarkable theatrical experience of Kwaidan, we claim and then lose innocence. But whether Chong intended our faith to fail is not clear.

The stories’ sealed world is well established by Ishii’s deceptively simple set and lighting. A series of windows and doors become toy theaters, framing smaller and smaller scenes. A central platform is surrounded by doorways and windows–sliding screens that give the stage the feeling of a classic Japanese dwelling. An arch of carved dark wood creates a proscenium within the MCA’s black box, setting the ancient comfortably within the modern. The arch frames a flexible backdrop set midstage, behind which the puppeteers are concealed, with windows into interior spaces and more screens for slide projection and shadow-puppet and silhouette performances.

It’s no wonder we forget our adult cynicism in such a satisfying, imaginative microcosm. Complicated puppetry gives the stories visual depth as well as narrative power, bringing us into this mythic world and creating seemingly effortless transitions. In “Jikininki” the monk grows larger, from a tiny figure in the distance to a man who fills the window like a living person. His hat falls to his shoulders as he climbs, first the tiny hat, then a life-size hat, toppling back to reveal his bald head and calm face: we enter his world from long shot to close-up, traveling with him up the face of the mountain. In “The Story of O-tei” the puppets are all larger than life. In the first scene, the hero reads a huge book and swats at an annoying puppet fly whose buzzing provides a counterpoint to the sound of pages turning. His ordinariness on a grand scale makes us identify with him, so that the tragedy of the second scene–the death of his betrothed–has more emotional power.

Clever lighting transforms wooden puppets into ghosts as well as people, making the fantasy even more seductive: the spirit world is both mesmerizing and startlingly simple. The flesh-eating spirit of “Jikininki” first appears as twisting strips of green light shimmering across a room to the pulsing tones of a flute. Coming to rest on a shrouded deathbed, the hungry spirit “consumes” the shape hidden in white folds of cloth, which sink slowly into nothingness. In “Miminashi-Hoichi” the hapless musician is welcomed to the underworld by an aristocratic ghost swathed in white silk, who passes (it seems) through a veil to become flesh, humanizing the monstrous clan of lost spirits. We fall in love with mystery through these spirits, soothed and stimulated at the same time by their repeated, increasingly beautiful gestures. This is great storytelling.

It wasn’t until Chong tried to bring us down to earth a bit in “The Story of O-tei” that I suspected he might have another agenda. After O-tei’s death and the narrator’s announcement that “time passes,” Chong pulls out his most didactic tricks in a photo collage representing the story’s transition into the modern world. Here the director-auteur’s images overtly intrude, but eventually I came to enjoy, not resent, the series of slides illustrating this heavy-handed phrase: a photo of a tree moves through four seasons, then becomes a radio, a TV, an airplane. Objects transform rapidly on three screens with a wicked sense of evolutionary logic: kites into airplanes, china cups of steaming coffee into crumpled Styrofoam litter, children’s hands into wrinkled claws. Some of the images are obvious, but there are so many that the transformation works. And Chong’s intrusion, his familiar editorializing, finally introduces his perspective: The modern world fades and dies, everything is thrown away. What is left?

In such a world the mythology of ancient Japan is extremely seductive. For the end of “The Story of O-tei,” the collaborative team re-creates the most franchised icon of American culture–a McDonald’s, located here in urban Japan. O-tei, the betrothed girl, is reincarnated as a clerk, and customers place their orders in one window while in the center opening a pair of hands enters them on a huge cash register. O-tei’s pleasant face fills the third window, intoning the familiar words, “May I take your order?” Satirizing U.S. cultural imperialism and the messy cosmopolitanism of McDonald’s, Chong creates a rambling line of punkish, exaggerated faces, ending suddenly with the dignified face of the story’s hero. Shifting briefly back into the mysterious, Chong establishes a slightly goofy but touching romantic pause as the two estranged lovers, with their enormous faces, look “into” each other’s eyes. The final scene gives us a bird’s-eye view of a city park where the two embrace, then takes us into the clouds–out of the modern world again but with a clear vision of the encroaching city.

This heavy-handed ending seems to offer us a choice. Pulled from the fantasy of old Japan by the unlikely modern reincarnation of O-tei, we’re turned into spirits ourselves, overlooking the world, uncommitted. Should we choose a quiet so intense that the buzzing of a fly or spirit whispers might wake us at night? Chong refuses to help us, leaves us hanging. Which course will we choose, the cynical or the innocent?

Kwaidan’s moving stories, lush puppetry, and subtle design seem to render the answer obvious. Everything except Chong’s final intrusion makes these escapes from modern life seem possible. Perhaps this is the irony–we cannot take these stories as models, yet momentarily we do. We understand for an instant their mysterious sense of peace, sharpened by danger, but we can’t claim it, except during their telling. In many ways Chong seems to long for all-engulfing narratives, for archetypes that will convince us of the order of the universe. But, intriguingly, he denies his own hunger: his postmodern habits haunt these ghost stories.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): performance still by Beatriz Schiller.