In Japanese, photography translates as "copying the truth," and the Yara Arts Group has produced a delicate, thoughtful theatrical exploration of the father of Japanese photography, Hikoma Ueno (1838-1904). Combining elements of music, dance, and puppetry, Sundown is an enigmatic meditation on the life of a pioneering artist. Rather than follow a straightforward biographical form, however, the play charts Ueno's life more abstractly, drawing from historical fact as well as texts written by such disparate authors as Emily Dickinson and anonymous geisha girls. Created and directed by Watoku Ueno (who also provides the vivid lighting and set design, and is of no relation to the photographer), Sundown allows Hikoma Ueno's life to unfold in mesmerizing, dreamlike scenes, underscored by violinist Storm Garner's haunting compositions, which can be both jarring and serene.
Although the proceedings turn overly metaphorical at times, Ueno himself (Nick Bosco) grounds the production, and Sundown investigates many transformative conflicts in his life. Raised in a tradition of portrait painting, he adopted the camera in his quest for clearer artistic expression. The camera was dismissed as witchcraft by many of his acquaintances, and Ueno's pursuit of photography was controversial during a time of overwhelming Western influence.
Ueno mixed his own chemicals and invented a "wet plate" developing procedure that, unlike a daguerreotype, created a negative that could be reproduced multiple times. Still, commercial success eluded him, and the majority of his subjects were geishas (whose beauty made them ideal subjects to be photographed), foreigners (who didn't have intrinsic prejudices against photography), and rebel leaders (who, prepared to die in battle, wanted their images preserved).
Impending mortality made a photograph overwhelmingly important to the Japanese samurai—not merely a luxury but a duty. "I completed my obligation to prepare for death," a soldier remarks after Ueno takes his photograph.
Whole sections of Sundown offer straightforward, and rather didactic, historical facts put forth by the six actors, who reveal comprehensive information about Ueno's background and surroundings. The actors form a captivating, precise ensemble throughout, but the play's most intriguing moments are the more poetic ones. Ueno (the director) uses a simple white screen to display mesmerizing images with puppets and light, as well as reproductions of many of Ueno's photographs.
With its suggestive, cyclical structure, Sundown arrives at several false endings, and a few of the final scenes (involving geishas and samurai) are rather protracted and feel randomly placed. And although Kazue Tani gives a compelling performance as the Bird Woman, her interactions with Ueno could be more clearly defined and explained. Fortunately, the stage pictures offer such arresting images that you are unlikely to be too bothered by the occasional opaque metaphor.
Ueno wanted to find an artistic formula for photography, a way to capture the "things we can't see that exist." A century after his death, photography continues to fascinate us as a window into lives and times gone by. In Sundown, the Yara Arts Group offers an intriguing study of one of history's most important—and largely forgotten—chroniclers of humanity. The production finds particular poignancy in the many photographs that appear on the screen; Ueno endeavored to "copy the truth," and the eyes of his subjects challenge us to understand more fully, beyond what we can see.