Quiz time for all you musical theater fans: what is the name of the American musical inspired by two completely naked and totally threatening Japanese gangsters, or yakuza, covered from head to toe in Technicolor tattoos? (Hint: it's not Pacific Overtures or Shogun: The Musical.)
Ding, ding, ding! Time's up. It's brand-new musical called Tokio Confidential, and to my knowledge it's the only tattoo musical in the world.
Despite such menacing inspiration, Tokio Confidential is a haunting love story about an American woman who, in 1879, bravely sets sail for Tokio (an older spelling of Tokyo) and by chance meets the most renowned tattoo master of the time. Her desire to become a living work of art -- a walking Hiroshige print -- is matched by his passion to paint the living canvas of a lifetime as he envelops this beautiful foreigner in his painful yet decorative art form. With each prick of her pale, luminous skin with his ink-drenched needle, they fall deeper into an obsessive and dangerous love. And then there's the added attraction of the evil Western art historian and his gay Japanese lover, perverted voyeurs to this enterprise.
So how do you get from naked gangsters to a historical musical love story? Stay with me here...
The gangster episode took place during my first trip to Japan, when I visited the town of Ibusuki, famous for its suna-mushi, or steam-sand baths. At the spa you lie down on your back, and a scantily clad attendant, dressed in a bottom-revealing short bathrobe, literally buries you up to your neck in piping-hot, black, volcanic sand. You pulse all over with the volcanic heat, tolerable for only about 15 minutes. There is no escape. You are at the mercy of the attendant, who, at the end of your treatment, removes the sand, shovel-full by shovel-full.
Before you lie down in this therapeutic grave, though, you must first cleanse yourself in the ritual bath. It was here that I saw the two fierce-looking characters lusciously tattooed head to toe, even down there (ouch!). The Japanese, of course, know it's forbidden to stare at these underworld figures; otherwise, you could risk becoming their next victim. Being a yokel Westerner, albeit one with manners, I glanced at their magnificent body art as surreptitiously but as often as possible. I was completely mesmerized by the intricate and irresistible representations of dragons, Buddhist deities, and cherry blossoms.
When I headed outside for my black-sand burial, I was assigned a plot next to the two mobsters. Now I was really sweating -- and not just because of the hot sand. Perhaps I was delirious from the heat, but I started thinking: what about a musical about Japanese tattoos? I know, who in their right mind would be humming tattoo tunes while being buried alive? But writing for musical theater is what I do for a living, after all.
Long after I left Ibusuki, the idea of a Japanese tattoo musical kept brewing. Back in New York City, I began to notice tattoos everywhere. I couldn't just walk past an East Village tattoo parlor -- I would have go in and study all the drawings and designs on the walls. Curiously, I realized I was a tattoo voyeur, for I wasn't remotely interested in going under the needle myself. Friends of mine who had sported tattoos for years suddenly became persons of interest. Most mentioned that the tattoos had sharpened and focused their identities -- and conveyed strength and individuality. Some of my gay friends readily admitted that they had decided to don body art to become more "masculine." Clearly, tattoos had the power to transform not only the body but one's personality and life. Powerful stuff.
My fascination with tattoos was matched only by my obsession with Japan, which also seemed only to have grown since my visit to the country. I suppose that seminal experience in Ibusuki had inextricably linked these two interests. As I read more about Japanese body tattoos, I learned that the designs, based on the traditional ukiyo-e (the wonderfully multicolored woodblock prints), served interesting and practical purposes. For a 19th-century rickshaw driver, who in the steaming summer heat would wear very little clothing, the tattoo served as a decorative brocade on the body. For a firefighter, the tattoo of a dragon, a powerful water god, was a protective talisman.
After Admiral Perry "opened" Japan in the middle of the 19th century (the subject of Pacific Overtures) and the country became more exposed to the West, the Japanese emperor, a fan of progress, outlawed tattooing. His concern was that Western visitors might happen upon decorated Japanese people and indict the nation as backwards or barbaric. Foreigners, however, were exempt from this ban, and many desired to be tattooed as a kind of permanent souvenir of their trip. Even some members of the English royal family came home inked.
This was the seed of the idea for my leading character. I decided that an American woman would travel to the demimonde of 19th-century Tokyo and decide to become totally tattooed. But the reason for her decision was still a mystery to me.
Having absorbed in New York as much as I could about 19th-century Japan and traditional Japanese tattooing, I decided it was time to return to the country for an extended period. The Asian Cultural Council generously provided me with a fellowship, not to interview more tattooed yakuza but to study traditional Japanese music and theater, a necessity for the creation of the musical.
On my second day in Tokyo, I went to join a gym. Before the manager would hand me my membership card, he asked a number of questions, the first of which was, "Do you have any tattoos?" This was no doubt meant to prevent yakuza from exercising on the premises. In any event, I answered in the negative and decided the question itself was a sign that a musical about tattoos was meant to happen. Tattoos are, by the way, still frowned upon in Japan, because, fundamentally, they are expressions of individuality and rebellion in a conformist society, where, to quote a famous proverb, "the nail that sticks out gets hammered down."
While living in Japan, I became a regular at Noh, the beautiful, often hypnotic plays steeped in Buddhism. These masterpieces date from the 14th century and are, actually, one of the oldest forms of what we might call musical theater; they artfully and seamlessly combine speech, song, and dance. There are many different types of Noh plays, but a whole subset deals with the warriors of Japan's 11th-century civil wars who fervently wish to escape the Buddhist hell to which they've been assigned as punishment for killing.
As I was watching these plays, I found myself thinking about warriors from our own Civil War, a century and a half ago. It was then that I solved the mystery about my leading lady. She would be a beautiful and brave American Civil War widow who, still grieving for her husband years after he's been killed, travels to Japan in 1879 and decides to become a living work of art as a way to erase her grief -- and rekindle her ability to love. Tokio Confidential would become a testament to the horror of war and the healing, transformative power of (body) art.
If it's true that gay audiences like musicals with a healthy dose of divas and death, Tokio certainly has both. And to think that the inspiration for this rather unique, cross-cultural love story came from a couple of colorful, criminal types from whom I could not avert my eyes. Kinda romantic, isn't it?
Tokio Confidential plays from Feb. 5 to 19 in New York City. For details, visit www.tokioconfidential.com.