. . . but soccer hosts are a dream team on stage

by Nobuko Tanaka

As in soccer, so on stage. Japan-Korea collaboration (or is it Korea-Japan collaboration?) is happening all over.

Just days after the start of the World Cup finals, co-hosted by the two countries, “Across the River” at Tokyo’s New National Theater teams talent from both sides in a co-production first mooted 2 1/2 years ago by Tamiya Kuriyama, the NNT’s artistic director.

In this rich and satisfying work, every bit as tasty as the onstage hanami (cherry-blossom viewing) picnic during which its events unfold, the Japanese ingredients are provided by dramatist Oriza Hirata, here writing and directing. His Korean counterparts are Kim Myung Hwa, who, after five years as a critic, began writing plays in 1997 and has now emerged as one of her country’s most acclaimed dramatists, and Lee Byung Hoon, who won a Korean special director’s prize in 1986 and ’87 and is a pioneer in cooperation between the two countries’ theater worlds.

Set in spring 2002, under cherry blossoms beside the Hangan River in Seoul, the bilingual story line brings together Korean language-school teacher Kim Mun Ho, his mother, brother, sister-in-law and some of his students. The students, Japanese of various backgrounds, include a businessman, the homemaker wife of another businessman, a Japanese of Korean ancestry aiming for a place in Korea’s Olympic swimming squad, his Korean girlfriend, a young man who has dropped out of the Japanese school system and a young woman backpacking her way around the world.

With such diverse characters brought together under one tree, the play raises and explores, in an insightful, witty and thankfully fresh way, well-worn themes such as the countries’ historical relationship, the social position of Japanese of Korean ancestry, and how individuals from each country view the other.

As well, however, it transcends such particulars. The audience is engaged by the drama’s thoughtful consideration of the whole sense (or non-sense) of borders and nationalism, and its exploration of the joys and problems of international romances, working relationships with foreigners, and each person’s sense of identity.

In the case of the Japanese characters, although each of them is an expatriate for a different reason, all share the position of outsider — a position rare for Japanese, whose insular life in their island country means that few give a thought to their identity as Japanese.

Here, clearly, Hirata has drawn on his own experience of living in Korea. As he explained: “I lived in Seoul for a year from 1984 to ’85. If I now talk about this experience in quite strong terms, it’s because it compelled me to think about the question: Who are we Japanese?”

In this production, the Japanese characters find themselves confronting problems that are normally overlooked or hidden in their own closed society. We become aware, through their stories, of the dilemma at the play’s heart: the whole issue of “identity,” of how to define oneself as an individual within a society.

As such, this play’s particularity of Japan-Korea (or Korea-Japan) is purely a vehicle for a broader theme, the challenge of re-examining self from unaccustomed angles. Indeed, it’s easy to imagine the same drama unfolding around many other countries.

Nonetheless, “Across the River” is handling matters that strike close to home for a Japanese audience. We see ourselves, perhaps, as diffident on the world stage; we speak of the ishin denshin (telepathy or intuition) that we sense with our fellow Japanese — an intuition that is disabled by travel abroad. In short, the Japanese away from home is liable to experience cultural confusion, or even conflict.

This play offers no solutions. What it does is suggest a way for people of all nationalities to draw their own borders on the world map. It explores strategies for positioning ourselves as individuals within an ever-changing and increasingly “borderless” — with easier travel, shared global technology and culture — world.

These issues are explored, too, from the Korean viewpoint. Past and present are bridged — the old mother’s recollection of Japan’s annexation of Korea juxtaposed with the younger generation’s dream of emigrating to Canada.

Literally and symbolically bridging the two groups is a concrete bridge that stretches over the stage, beneath which is the cherry tree under whose branches the picnickers sit. As if to underscore its role as unifier, it is onto the supports of the bridge that translations of the Korean portions of the dialogue are projected.

At this time, with a shared love of soccer bridging countries the world over, this play presents a perfect opportunity to rethink issues of internationalization and accommodation — from whatever the individual’s national starting point.

Indeed, while applauding strong and sensitive performances from the cast — notably Bark Sung Hee as the old mother, and Lee Nam Hee and Seo Hyun Chul playing her sons — the production staff deserves special recognition for working long and hard to make this project the dramatic and cross-cultural success it is.

Noteworthy is the informative program, covering not only historical background but also providing a wealth of information about theater in Korea. There is also information on the places referred to in the play, while the well-translated dialogue contributes hugely, too, to realizing this hanami’s ultimate goal.