A humorous view of history from the other side of the lens

by Nobuko Tanaka

At last, I got to see a play by Koki Mitani, whose comedy dramas are just about the most difficult to get tickets for nowadays. This is not only because of the critical ovations that greet his productions, but also because of the star status of Mitani himself.

In 1994 Mitani closed his theater group, Tokyo Sunshine Boys, “for a 30-year rest.” Since then, the multitalented 40-year-old has become one of Japan’s most prolific and well-known dramatists, scripting and directing for stage, television and cinema, as well as contributing weekly essays to the Asahi Shimbun.

As a result of this celebrity status — which, naturally enough, also extends to appearances in TV commercials alongside SMAP’s Takuya Kimura — even people who may never before have been to a theater now flock to see anything graced by his touch.

The current production of Mitani’s “Hikoma the Hero” is third time around for the writer-director — though this version, at the Parco Theater in Shibuya, is a complete revision of the drama as it was staged with Tokyo Sunshine Boys in 1990 and ’93. Mitani’s TV work has perhaps influenced the direction in which the play has moved: Centering on Hikoma Kanda, a character based on the real-life Hikoma Ueno whose life spanned the turbulent downfall of the Tokugawa Shogunate and the Meiji Restoration, the story’s emphasis has shifted from historical to family drama.

However, as the country’s first commercial photographer and a pioneer of new photographic techniques, Hikoma’s life inevitably took on historical significance, as he was able to capture on film — or glass plates — images of many of the key players in those momentous, revolutionary times 150 years ago. Foremost among them was a man whose heroic status is undiminished even in modern-day Japan, pro-imperial activist Sakamoto Ryoma. Hikoma’s picture of him standing beside a wooden cabinet in the photographer’s Nagasaki studio is probably the most famous portrait in Japanese history.

In Mitani’s play, Hikoma himself, played by Fumiyo Kohinata, is a man always going his own way, sidestepping the many opportunities for involvement in the era’s Byzantine political intrigues and conflicts. Instead, his one constant passion was for photography. Part of history, but apart from it, Hikoma comes across as a man who observed the world from a different viewpoint — through his camera lens — and was unafraid to record for posterity players on all sides of drama around him, regardless of the danger involved.

Hikoma’s life was not devoid of its own drama. We see him with the likes of Ryoma, the Satsuma leader Saigo Takamori and shogunate assassin Kondo Isami in his studio, where he strove to capture their inner selves, normally hidden from public view. We also follow the private drama of his daughter’s ill-fated betrothal to Ryoma and his son’s vacillating allegiance to the two opposed powers, imperial and shogunal. Set throughout in the garden of Hikoma’s humble house and open-air studio — not in Edo Castle or Kyoto’s Imperial Palace — Mitani’s play presents these great events from the small man’s perspective.

Helped by perfect casting — every actor and actress a key component and none a solitary star — this production succeeds most triumphantly as a satire on the shifting sands of personal loyalties and political affiliation. It casts a timely eye over the kind of prepackaged value judgments that fill history books and propagate the soundbite politics that divide the world into goodies and baddies. All in all, it’s no less than a heart-warming song in praise of humanity — and a play to see, if you possibly can.