TeZuka is a multi-media spectacle that saturates the senses – dance, music, text, comic strips and calligraphy unfold in dazzling layer upon layer.
Created by Belgian choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, it is a homage to the pioneer “manga” cartoon genius Osamu Tezuka (1928-89), who created cartoon books in postwar Japan.
Cherkaoui is a devoted fan of Tezuka and his work emulates the intensity and drama of the original comics. In his desire to recreate the cartoonist’s life, Cherkaoui attempts to cover all aspects of his life – sometimes to excess.
Cherkaoui references Japan’s postwar nuclear traumas and extends the production to present much of the life and work of Tezuka from that period and later decades.
The performance begins simply enough – a dancer curls and rolls with a comic book gripped in his toes while the biography begins in subtitles. We are introduced to Tezuka’s most popular character, Astro Boy, who, part robot, part boy, is nuclear-powered yet peace-loving, defending himself and others with superhuman strength.
Empty cartoon spaces bounce across the blank canvas waiting for creative action; giant frames cascade forwards or flip back. In one extended sequence, two dancers collide in a mock fight resulting in a Japanese “ka-pow!” that sends tiny black cartoon figures exploding over the screen.
Popular characters from Tezuka’s comics are brought to life on stage by a mix of Japanese and European performers: insect woman, the priest and the boy, an androgynous idol. Other characters and stories are told in paper, writing, drawing and ink. In giant cartoon enlargements, sections balloon up for the audience to read the text. An artist draws Japanese writing on huge scrolls that drop down in columns; dancers draw on each other’s backs – these smudge, then seep away. More screens fall to become ephemeral canvases as dancers trace outlines that become animated then float away.
The work has a masculine edge – there is one woman among the 12 dancers – with back flips, strong holds, dramatic martial arts leaps and combative encounters. And there are breathtaking sequences of fluid, finely attuned dancing with movement suggesting brushstrokes, and two stunningly expressive duets.
Nitin Sawhney’s lyrical score is played by three musicians on stage – piano, violin and traditional instruments. Two Japanese vocalists add intense presence and colour.
Performers narrate Tezuka’s complex and lengthy theories on bacterial activity and cellular construction in French. While projected into subtitles, they nevertheless become very dense and difficult to comprehend.
The sum is a wonderful, visual extravaganza – yet ultimately at its heart the work is poignant, even melancholic. Tezuka’s characters strive for a better world, free from political corruption and environmental harm. When Astro Boy catches the red sun and moulds it into a gleaming orb, it turns into an inky black explosion, and only he, a mutant from nuclear fission, walks free.
TEZUKA, by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, St James Theatre, Wellington, until March 6, as part of the New Zealand International Arts Festival.