Actress hoping to shed light on Okinawans’ wartime plight

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KAMAKURA, Kanagawa Pref. — Tension fills the small studio; two men listen attentively to a woman clad in a worn-out kimono as the occasional beat of a Japanese drum echoes through the room.

“Good, good. OK, nice,” British translator Roger Prior tells actress Mizue Aramaki, whose face looks slightly flushed after nearly 40 minutes of rehearsing her monodrama, “Masaru’s Song — A Battlefield Lullaby.”

“You’ve improved a lot,” adds Prior.

But director Yuusei Yano feels the actress is crying too much.

“Don’t feel so sad when you are acting.” he says. “It’s OK to act as a madwoman.”

“Masaru’s Song” is a monodrama set during the Battle of Okinawa, the only World War II ground battle fought against the Allied forces on Japanese soil. It is the English version of “Ori no Uta” (“Lullaby in the Womb”), first staged in 1996 and also written by Aramaki, who is the sole performer.

With the English version set for a two-day run in Tokyo beginning Oct. 18, Aramaki is currently rehearsing with Yano, Prior — who translated the play — and drummer Tomoyuki Okada.

Aramaki plays a young mother who seeks shelter inside a “kameko-baka,” a huge Okinawan traditional mausoleum, with her baby, Masaru. As the battle approaches, her love for Masaru spirals into madness, leading her to eventually kill her son.

“There are various types of a mother’s love for her children,” Aramaki said. “But I wanted to depict how the love can be destroyed by war.”

The idea of staging an English version came from Hiroshi Kawahito, a lawyer noted for his work on lawsuits involving death resulting from overwork or work-related stress.

According to Kawahito, U.S. servicemen in Okinawa and those around them do not have a good grasp of the history and culture of the islands.

In February, Kawahito overheard an American tour guide showing people around the island. It was an experience that spurred him to action.

While showing the family members of U.S. servicemen around the various battle sites on the island, the guide seemed to concentrate only on the U.S. side of the conflict, Kawahito noted.

To Kawahito, it sounded as though the guide was stating that Japanese soldiers had put up a futile resistance.

“The bitter realities that many civilians had to die in the war were neglected,” he said.

Kawahito, who lectures at the University of Tokyo, has taken his students to Okinawa every year since 1995, when the rape of a 12-year-old schoolgirl by U.S. servicemen made headlines in Japan.

“There is a limit to teaching history in a classroom,” he said.

To prepare “Ori no Uta,” Aramaki read a wide variety of testimonials written by Okinawa civilians, U.S. war correspondents and Japanese soldiers. She also researched documents about the Battle of Okinawa, U.S. military bases built after the war and the economy of the island prefecture.

She also traveled in Okinawa and studied its cultural and ethnological features, leading translator Prior, a postgraduate student in modern Japanese literature, to label the play as a piece of “historical realism.”

Aramaki belongs to Mingei, a prestigious Japanese theater company noted for addressing social issues. Since joining Mingei in 1988, Aramaki has appeared in plays set to a background of conflict, including the 1937 Nanjing Massacre and the atomic bombing of Nagasaki.

In 1996, Aramaki established her own group, Sanrinsha, to perform monodramas, while remaining a member of Mingei.

Aramaki said her involvement in “The Diary of Anne Frank,” staged by Mingei, inspired her later activities.

For seven years beginning in 1990, Aramaki played Miep Gies, a Dutch woman who protected Anne and her family from the Nazis. Aramaki describes the experience as her first big role.

“If I take up the conduct of Germany, I thought I must look at my own country’s problems,” she said, citing Japan’s aggression toward its Asian neighbors before and during the war. “I thought I wanted to look at the Anne Frank of Japan.”

The original Japanese version was performed in the Okinawan dialect, which most mainland Japanese find difficult to understand. Aramaki said she used this dramatic device to throw light on the fact that Okinawans were arrested as spies by the Imperial Japanese Army due to communication difficulties.

Aramaki and Prior were forced to surrender this device in writing the English version after considering the use of various English dialects.

Moreover, some Japanese words are difficult to translate into English, including the names of domestic foods, while the subjects of some Japanese sentences are not clear, they said.

Prior said he revised the draft script “hundreds of times.”

Director Yano said, however, that he treated the English and Japanese versions in the same manner.

“There is nothing I force from the audience in terms of interpretation,” Yano said. “There exist just facts.”

Aramaki’s performance will be accompanied by a “sanshin,” an Okinawan shamisen-like musical instrument, as well as Okada’s drum.

“There are invisible human dramas behind the faceless announcement of how many have died,” Aramaki said. “I like to explore the power of imagination in the form of drama.”

“Masaru’s Song — A Battlefield Lullaby” will be performed on Oct. 18 at 7:00 p.m. and on Oct. 19 at 2:00 p.m., at Ginza Miyuki Kan Theater in Tokyo. A performance will also be held in Okinawa on Dec. 17 at Okinawa Christian Junior College. For details, contact Sanrinsha at (045) 774-1639 or at uzuho@mac.com.