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The Butcher’s Back

by Carlos Amato / 16.10.2012

“Fabulous gustatory delights, erotic pleasure… moral horror that ultimately will leave you wrenched and enthused and wishing for more.” – Robyn Sassen, Artslink

“An hysterical fusion of English and Japanese that drifts into bouts of pure poetry.” – Hailey Gaunt, Mail &Guardian

“It showed us what theatre is about in its absolute essence” – Amsterdam Fringe Jury

This week The Epicene Butcher & Other Stories For Consenting Adults returns to Joburg’s POP Art by popular demand. It’s fresh from gently violating the Amsterdam Fringe Festival, where it won both the Critics’ Choice and Best Foreign Production awards.

Disclosure: being an illustrator of one of the stories, I’m a partisan source, but the show has bewitched many disinterested people. If you have a taste for oddness, or Japan, or ribaldry, or grotesquerie, or cunning analogue parodies of digital culture, you are strongly advised to attend.

The Epicene Butcher is the brainchild of Johannesburg writer/performer/illustrator Jemma Kahn, writer Gwydion Beynon and director John Trengove.

It rewires the venerable Japanese art of kamishibai, or “paper drama” — a street theatre technique created in 12th-century Buddhist temples. Both manga comics and anime films are formal descendants of kamishibai, in which a tale is told over a series of bold, dramatic illustrations.
Kamishibai was deployed by the imperial authorities as a propaganda technique during the Second World War, and until TV captured Japan in the fifties, it was a staple of childrens’ entertainment practitioners travelled the country on bicycles, lugging boxes full of pictures.

Today, fewer than 100 kamishibai practitioners remain in Japan – plus Kahn and a handful of others elsewhere. Kahn was captivated by the form while living in Japan for a couple of years recently, and studied under the veteran performer Rokuda Genji – the two wrote and performed together for over a year. In her first kamishibai production since returning to South Africa, she enlisted Beynon and Trengove to help craft a collection of wild and woolly South Afro-Japanese tales. Kahn spent six months drawing, taking her radically inventive line on an adventure through manga cute kitsch, hentai porn and the grandeur of Hokusai.

The show’s title story, The Epicene Butcher, illustrated by Kahn and written in rhyming verse by Beynon, takes the audience back to the Edo period (1603 – 1868). It recounts the gothic tragedy of Japan’s most beautiful woman and most talented butcher. To reveal anything more would be remiss.

The other stories include a hilarious trip into the tormented consciousness of Super Mario (the game character, not the footballer), an oddly affecting kamishibai rendition of a porno fantasy, and a monochrome version of The Spider Thread, a mordant Buddhist short story by the early 20th century master Akutagawa Ryunosuke.

One of the show’s corkers is a Japanese-language kamishibai biography of Mandela.

But because the Mandela story was a bit baffling for foreign audience members lacking a South African cultural compass, a Dutch-themed alternative for the Amsterdam Fringe run was conceived. So we crafted a biography of the late Amsterdam schmaltz-folk singer Andre Hazes, who might be described as the Dutch Bles Bridges with a dash of Johnny Cash. The idea was to celebrate Hazes’ croonsome, boozy story, while also trying to generate the comic spark of seeing one’s own cultural icon refracted through the peculiar filter of the Japanese mind (plus the added peculiar filter of South African mediation).

The Hazes tale is being parked for future outings to Holland, but this month’s local run will include a brand new story: Mario’s Lament.

The Epicene Butcher & Other Stories For Consenting Adults plays in Joburg at POP Art, Maboneng Precinct, from Thursday 18 – Sunday 21 October. Book here.

The show then moves to Cape Town at the Alexander Bar, Strand Street from 7-13 December 2012.

* Images 1,2,4,5: © Jemma Kahn. Images 3, 6: © Carlos Amato

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