Friday, 8 July 2022

Review: The Story of the Tower (Hirai-Kikaku and Media Kobo, C ARTS, GM Fringe)

July 2022
Digital Event

The Greater Manchester Fringe runs throughout July, with performances at various venues around Greater Manchester and online. Once again, I’m going to be reviewing a selection of the productions on offer for this blog, and also for The Festival Show on North Manchester FM.

The next show I saw this year was a digital production, and it was part of the C ARTS strand on this year’s Fringe programme. C ARTS is a curated independent arts programme that delivers work for the Edinburgh Fringe, which is then made available online via streaming throughout the year. Although produced for the Edinburgh Fringe, C ARTS productions are now included on the programmes of other fringe festivals, such as Brighton Fringe and – more importantly for today’s post – the Greater Manchester Fringe.

The production I’m going to be reviewing now was originally produced for the 2021 Edinburgh Fringe, but it’s available to stream with a ticket purchase from the Greater Manchester Fringe website throughout the month of July. I’m reviewing The Story of the Tower, a short film installation from Hirai-Kikaku and Media Kobo. The radio version of this review will be broadcast on The Festival Show on Friday 8th July, but here’s the blog version…

The Story of the Tower begins with a shot of a railway station in Tokyo, with ambient sounds playing. A voiceover (Mitsuko Hirai) greets us (admittedly greets us as though we’re in Edinburgh in August 2021!) and encourages us to relax and get ready for the show. A little bit of background information is given, explaining that three stories will be told and that these will be in Japanese, English and broken, mistranslated English. The Japanese story, we’re told, will be ‘One Arm’ by Yasunari Kawabata, and a brief plot synopsis is offered for those who don’t speak Japanese or who haven’t read the English translation of this story.

And then the camera begins to move. The audience is invited to travel with the disembodied voice, from the station to the theatre where the performance will take place, and to enjoy the sounds of a shopping street in Tokyo along the way. It’s a strange experience – the camera is steady, and the pace of movement is measured (as though we’re ambling, not speeding through the city street). It’s almost hypnotic. But there are also some little details in the street – the snippets of sound, the way the bodies of passers-by move in and out of shot at awkward accidental angles, the quiet voyeurism of the disembodied point-of-view, the shop signs that are a jumble of Japanese, English and mistranslated English (one or two being hard to parse for a native English speaker) – that anticipate the style and concerns of the production proper.

And then we enter a ‘theatre’ (which appears more like a basement room in a rather nondescript office) and the physical performance begins.

A lone performer (Yoshiko Imamura, who also choreographed the piece) stands against a plain wall holding an arm towards her face. Another arm appears, covered with a long glove. As the performance unfolds, chromakeying is used to project – or more accurately to layer – a set of images onto the glove, the wall and (eventually) the body of Imamura (filming is by Rob Moreno). The images are of arms and faces, which interact (it looks like they touch, caress and hold) the ‘live’ body of the performer. All the while, Hirai reads from Kawabata’s story, the audio forming another layer to the performance.

This sequence is hypnotic – though in a different way to the pre-show sequence on the street. The effect of the layering of images in the film results in Imamura’s body becoming fragmented, incoherent at times. It is often difficult to understand what ‘shape’ the performer’s body has, as it is distorted by the multiple limbs that are superimposed through the filming. At a number of points, I was surprised to find that the hand I had assumed was Imamura’s was actually part of the projected film.

And a similar effect is created with the audio. Although Hirai begins by telling the story as though she is reading it quietly, the voiceover also becomes layered, with echoes and whispers added to create a subtle sense of polyphony that augments the polymorphous visuals. This is both unsettling and mesmeric, and I would say the effect was heightened by the fact that I don’t understand Japanese (I think I picked out one single word from the voiceover, but that was ‘arigato’ so I’m not sure that’s a huge achievement from me!), and this heightened the uncanniness of the sequence. Hirai’s voiceover was recognizable and familiar as storytelling, but unfamiliar because of the language barrier; in the same way, Imamura’s body was recognizable and familiar as a human body, but also unfamiliar because of the movement of both the performer and the layering of other limbs and body parts.

From here, the piece moves into another story. This time it’s ‘The Black Tower’ by Mimei Ogawa, which is told in English. Again, Imamura offers a wordless physical performance, with images projected on and around her. In this sequence, it’s not so much the physical body that is fragmented and distorted through the layered images, but rather a sense of framing and staging.

The other effect created by placing these sequences together is a distortion – or an undermining – of narrative structure. While both ‘One Arm’ and ‘The Black Tower’ are narratives (though as magic realism and fairy tale respectively, they may not be the most logical of stories), The Story of the Tower turns them into fragments and layers them together in a way that unsettles narrative coherence. The drive for audience members to make connections between the two stories or to link them in terms of theme or plot is consistently thwarted and – in places – the stories dissolve into a sea of words.

And this is where the piece’s underlying influence becomes apparent. As the introductory sequence tells us, The Story of the Tower is inspired by the story of the Tower of Babel. The final sequence, in which a recording of an automated transcription of the breaking news of the destruction of the Twin Towers plays (in occasionally broken or slightly awkward English) over Imamura’s performance and the layered visuals that take us backwards through the Tokyo street scene we experienced at the beginning, brings everything together in a way that – for all its incoherence and uncanniness – does make sense. Again, the piece plays with the effect of defamiliarization: the measured walk through the city street from earlier becomes unfamiliar – almost uncomfortable – as it plays in reverse, in black-and-white, with the physical presence of the performer appearing to step in and out of the film.

The Story of the Tower is a strange and immersive piece. It’s visually hypnotic, but it also has a wonderfully disconcerting soundscape that compliments the physical performances. It encourages the audience to think about communication and its breakdown – as is clear from the reference to the Tower of Babel – but also about the construction of narrative and the coherence of form in physical performance and storytelling.

Overall, I would definitely recommend you check out The Story of the Tower (and I’d also recommend you watch it with headphones, so you can get the most out of the audio elements). It’s strange, compelling and challenging, and it’s unsettling in all the right ways.

The Story of the Tower is available to stream throughout the month of July, as part of the C ARTS strand on this year’s Greater Manchester Fringe programme. For the full programme of Greater Manchester Fringe shows on this year, please visit the festival website.

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