The Tokyo Olympics opened last week, but the opening ceremony was lacklustre, without a spectacle or coherent concept, failing to deliver a message amid the pandemic. Many in the audience of Ryuuguu: The Turtle Princess at the National Ballet of Japan that opened the following day thought that this charming ballet could have been a great replacement for that Olympic opening ceremony.

Shun Izawa (Urashima Taro) and Yui Yonezawa (Turtle Princess)
© Takashi Shikama

Ryuuguu successfully premiered last July, one of the very first ballet performances to be held after the two-month lockdown in Japan. Choreographer and dancer Kaiji Moriyama created the work, based on the Japanese folk tale Urashima Taro, amid the Covid-19 crisis. It was Moriyama’s first creation for a ballet company. It was a delight to see that live, full-length performance after the lockdown, but sadly the final two performances were cancelled due to infection in the theatre. This time, all eight performances were given before a reduced audience.

The original story of Urashima Taro is as follows. A young fisherman rescues a turtle teased by children and the following day a princess appears telling him she was the turtle that he saved. She takes him to a marvellous Ryuuguu Palace underwater, where fish, sharks, jellyfish and octopuses entertain him while he and the princess fall in love. When he eventually wishes to return home, she gives him a box, a tamatebako. Seven hundred years had passed on earth during his underwater journey and, when he opens the box, he transforms into an old man.

Moriyama carefully adds a twist to this story. Lead by the Guide of Time (the storyteller), the second half is placed in the Chamber of Four Seasons, where Taro enjoys the beautiful seasons of Japan. Another twist is that after Taro’s transformation to an old man, he then transforms into a crane god, a symbol of long life and prosperity, and is finally reunited with the Turtle Princess to live happily ever after.

Ryuuguu: The Turtle Princess
© Takashi Shikama

Although this ballet is a family friendly programme, it involves deep philosophy and is a great introduction to Japanese traditional culture, with all the costumes and sets beautifully designed by Moriyama himself. The first half is filled with entertainment, the underwater creatures are charmingly funny and their dances are unique. Three Squid Brothers dances a joyful tango, Goldfish Geishas, Sea Horses, Octopuses and Blowfishes entertains Taro, while the Sharks perform a show-stopping virtuoso duo. The feast at the underwater palace is a brilliant and festive divertissement.

Moriyama is known for his involvement with traditional culture as well as his creations for children, as he had been collaborating with Noh (Japanese traditional theatre) artists for a long time. The Four Seasons section was spellbinding: cherry blossoms and heavenly dancers in the Spring; Sumo-wrestler inspired summer festival youngsters, and star-crossed lovers in Summer; bubbly acorns and the goddess Tatsuta-hime in Autumn; brides and grooms in the snow in Winter. The bittersweet sequence of the mythical doomed lovers in Summer, and the Winter wedding where couples walk through the heavy snow are hauntingly beautiful. Many of the designs and sets are inspired by Noh and Kabuki, such as the iconic pine tree and the Chamber of Four Seasons. When Taro opens the tamatebako box, his transformation into an aged man is represented by his putting on a Noh mask of “Okina (old man)” while the kimono costume change is done on stage with the Kabuki technique “Hikinuki”. The movements are sophisticated and well merged into dance.

Yui Yonezawa (Turtle Princess) and Shun Izawa (Urashima Taro)
© Takashi Shikama

There were four leading casts for Ryuuguu this time, and I could see three of them, each had its own characteristics and virtues. Risako Ikeda and Kosuke Okumura, in the second cast but featured in the promotional material, were the ideal Taro and Turtle Princess with their youthfulness. Ikeda’s natural innocence and fairy-story princess style, combined with flawless technique is irresistible, the colourful turtle-shell tutu and fins perfectly match her, while Okumura’s boyish charm and honesty is a good fit for the kindhearted Taro. As regular partners, their partnership is apparent and the heart-throbbing pas deux in the first act, the heartbreaking farewell pas de deux in the second act were both captivating, Okumura’s transformation, from a young fisherman to an old man, and finally to a divine crane was magnificent, with his light, airy leaps and danseur-noble stage presence. The affectionate and dramatic Yui Yonezawa as the first cast Turtle Princess was mesmerising as always.  

Ryuuguu: the Turtle Princess is a beautiful, entertaining ballet suitable for both children and adults, and is also a great showcase piece of Japanese traditional culture. I am sure that international audiences would enjoy it and hope that one day, after the pandemic, the company can tour this ballet abroad.