A recent survey by Theater Guide magazine put Koki Mitani ahead of even Shakespeare as the dramatist best known in Japan.
Admittedly this isn’t just because of his stage work. In recent years he has enjoyed success with scripts for both the big and small screen too, including last year’s movie “Ryoma no Tsuma to Sono Otto to Aijin (Ryoma’s Wife and her Husband and her Lover),” the TV sitcom “HR” and the megahit detective show “Furuhata Ninzaburo.” If this wasn’t enough, he also writes a popular weekly column for Asahi Shimbun.
Mitani is, in short, a phenomenon, and thanks to that, tickets for “Okepi” — which he both wrote and directs — are near impossible to come by, despite the fact that the play is enjoying a relatively long run of more than a month in Tokyo, plus stops in Nagoya and Osaka.
So what is it about Mitani’s comedy that so many Japanese love so much? Well, “Okepi” is a slightly reworked version of Mitani’s first musical play, which was a huge hit when it debuted in 2000. The title is an abbreviated form of “orchestra pit,” and the story centers on musicians doing a regular night’s work playing for a musical.
In the original staging, a split structure on stage cleverly allowed the audience to see both the inside of the orchestra pit and the legs of the musical’s performers above. This time, however, to avoid the distraction of that “double image,” all we see is the pit. In this version, though the action on the musical’s stage has been dispensed with, what’s happening there is relayed to the orchestra conductor (Akira Shirai) through headphones. He then tells the 12 orchestra members (and us in the audience) what’s going on — whether it’s that the star is tired and can’t dance uptempo, or that he wants to cut a few numbers so he can get home early.
Meanwhile, we also become privy to the relationships between the orchestra members, many of whom are old acquaintances. For example, we learn that the conductor and his wife, the violinist (Keiko Toda), are now separated because she had an affair with the new jazz trumpeter (Yasufumi Terawaki), who, in turn, has a secret girlfriend in the pit. As well, with most of the men in the orchestra lusting after the foxy harpist (Yuki Amami), all kinds of romantic subplots unfold before our eyes.
Then there’s a substitute percussionist (Kenji Kohashi), a passionate musician who’s playing his first night with the orchestra and is appalled at the way his colleagues behave, with the hungover trumpeter staggering off to get some fresh air and missing his solo, and others chatting and cutting deals with each other even as they play. There’s a touch of mystery, too, in the shape of the veteran oboist (Akira Fuse), whose secrets are revealed that night by chance.
As this is a musical, we in the audience make our discoveries as the orchestra’s members reveal their feelings in song. This may sound reminiscent of “A Chorus Line,” but far from that blandly unconvincing look at the American Dream, trumpeting its members’ successes against all the odds, “Okepi” entertains through its focus on the humdrum, petty dramas of everyday life.
Apart from the sitcom appeal of this “reality musical” ‘s carefully drawn characters, the strongest point of this fine production is the casting. All the actors wear their characters like a glove and play their parts with refreshing individuality. In this respect, the pianist (Fumiyo Kohinata) stands out for his heartwarming presence, though none shines brighter than Akira Shirai’s lovable conductor, perpetually besieged for advice by his troubled musicians despite being so enmeshed in his own matrimonial troubles as to be unable to offer anything constructive.
In particular, what is quite unusual here is not only the absence of backbiting competition among the cranky characters portrayed, but the similar sense of harmony between the actors themselves, none of whom attempts to hog the limelight.
In SMAP’s current chart-topping “Sekai ni Hitotsudake no Hana (Only One Flower in the World)” one line goes, “I would not wish to be No. 1 because each of us is always the ‘only one.’ ” In a similar way here, Mitani’s feel-good musical — with a hearty, quirky score by Takayuki Hattori — is telling us that each instrument (both musical and human) creates different tunes and tones. However, by working together, this kindly drama tells us, each of these different elements can play in beautiful harmony.
“Okepi” runs till April 20 at the Aoyama Theater, an 8-minute walk from JR Shibuya Station. To apply for a maximum of two standby tickets per person, call (03) 5237-9000 from noon onward for that evening’s performance.
After Tokyo, “Okepi” plays from May 1-9 at Aichi Koseinenkin Kaikan in Nagoya; and May 16-30 at Osaka Festival Hall.
Tickets from 6,300 yen to 12,600 yen. For more details, call (03) 3477-5858.
The Ku Na’uka Theater Co. will stage two performances, on March 21 only, of “Tenshu Monogatari (Tenshu’s Story)” with English surtitles. One of Ku Na’uka’s most acclaimed works, “Tenshu Monogatari,” written by the company’s founder and director, Satoshi Miyagi, is based on an epic tale of tragic love by the Taisho- and Showa-period author Kyoka Izumi (1873-1939).
In addition, before he takes this production on a U.S. tour, Miyagi, together with Oriza Hirata (founder and director of the Seinendan Theater Co.), will talk about contemporary theater at 4 p.m.