It’s a man’s, man’s world . . . unfortunately

by Nobuko Tanaka

Last week I looked at two plays depicting the lives of women. This week, the focus is two excellent contemporary comedy dramas about modern Japanese history — and that means it’s big-shot male politicians, bureaucrats and gangsters who hold center stage.

“Yume no Namida (Tears of a Dream)” is the second play in a “Tokyo War Crimes Trial” trilogy for the New National Theatre. Like the first part, 2001′s “Yume no Sakeme (Torn Dreams),” “Yume” is a musical comedy written by 69-year-old Hisashi Inoue, the renowned author, scriptwriter and current president of the Japan PEN Club, and directed by Tamiya Kuriyama, the NNT’s artistic director.

Asked in 1999 why he was moved to address this subject, Inoue replied that “as well as examining responsibility for the war itself, we Japanese — along with other nations — have a duty to examine responsibility for what has followed. But after the war, Japanese were too busy with economic recovery to look at the historical evidence from before, during or after the war.”

As the play begins, we see a white curtain hung at the back of the stage. On this blank canvas, which represents Tokyo in 1945, almost erased by fire-bombing, we see a scorched hole, symbolizing the vanished prewar core of Japanese identity. Into this landscape steps the Ito family. The hero Kikuji (Takuzo Kadono) and his wife Akiko (Kazuyo Mita) are both lawyers, who work out of their house, one of the few buildings left standing in devastated Shinbashi.

One day, Akiko — the better lawyer of the two — is asked to join the defense team representing accused Class-A war criminal Yosuke Matsuoka, the foreign minister from 1940 to ’41, at his Tokyo trial. In the course of her work, this ordinary woman comes to realize that some extraordinary, politicized and largely hidden issues exist between Occupation GHQ and Japan’s (U.S.-sanctioned) leaders in what is being touted as a purely judicial process.

Additionally, unlike many Japanese either then or now, this “everyman” family is forced to confront other unsavory aspects of the way their postwar country is being shaped, such as the structural injustice directed against Korean-Japanese, and the cozy relationship being forged between the police, politicians, bureaucrats and the yakuza.

By viewing such shadowy maneuverings through the eyes of ordinary folk, rather than their masters — and by punctuating it all with 15 songs, many of them rewritten versions of numbers by Kurt Weil, famed for his compositions for Bertolt Brecht productions — Inoue at a stroke brings responsibility for history back home to “us.”

Whether this production will affect a change in the rotten state of present-day Japan is, of course, anyone’s guess. However, it was a promising sign to see a number middle-aged men (theater audiences in Japan tend to be largely female) in the audience on the night I attended. And the play’s conclusion is true to life: Here we have Matsuoka dying of illness in Sugamo prison rather than being judged and sentenced in a “trial” so clearly unworthy of its name.

If only the Japanese cast could master Weil’s melodies a little better, this excellent musical drama would surely have the potential to rise to Brechtian heights as a significant social comedy for our times.

“Yume no Namida” runs till Nov. 3 at the New National Theatre, a 1-minute walk from Hatsudai Station on the Keio New Line. Tickets 3 yen,150-5,250 yen. For more details, call the National Theatre box office at (03) 5352-9999 or see www.nntt.jac.go.jp

Tripping over from the NNT to Shimokitazawa, we find “Sonoba Shinogino Otokotachi (Haphazard Men),” the 30th anniversary production of the Tokyo Vaudeville Show company.

Founded by then 24-year-old “B-saku” Sato (his name is a pun on that of the contemporaneous Prime Minister Eisaku “A-saku” Sato) and four other thespians, TVS intended, as Sato explains in the program, to create a youthful comedy company that would also serve as a springboard for its actors to break into the relatively closed world of television dramas.

Well, TVS certainly succeeded in that, but to Sato’s admitted surprise, it has successfully stayed the course as a generator of live comedy as well. This show demonstrates why.

First staged in 1992, then again two years later, “Sonoba Shinogino Otokotachi” has struck such a chord that after an upcoming four-month tour it will be back in Tokyo in March. Expect full houses throughout the run.

Written by the ever-popular Koki Mitani, the play is set in 1891, just as Japan was emerging from centuries of isolation and becoming a major player on the world stage. Back then, as the neighboring superpower of Czarist Russia was becoming the nation’s perceived enemy, a Japanese policeman attacked the visiting Russian crown prince.

The drama unfolds in one room in the hotel where the Russian royal is being treated: Five self-important, leading politicians meet like headless chickens under the ineffectual leadership of the prime minister of just five days, Masayoshi Matsukata (Minoru Sawatari). Soon after, the real political power broker, Hirobumi Ito (Shiro Ito), joins them there in what develops into a situation (tragi-)comedy in which their pathetic attempts to avoid diplomatic trouble founder amid indecision and wheeler-dealing reminiscent of so much in contemporary Japanese society.

Though the sorry state of politics and the media today is nothing to laugh about, this production is hilarious from beginning to end. To a large extent, this is due to the acting skills of TVS’ outstanding cast — above all to the restrained excellence of the guest actor, the leading comedian, actor and presenter Shiro Ito. However, Ito’s brilliance shines amid what is truly a team effort, one dependent also on perfectly calculated direction.

But in the men’s world depicted here, as Ito points out in the program, diplomatic dysfunction and internal political disunity combine — however humorously — to produce a situation that is nothing if not contemporary. TVS’ mission is as relevant as it was when the company was founded. All power to them for their next 30 years.