Strange, but true: These days, the chance of seeing a quality Japanese “kitchen sink” (domestic) drama about ordinary people’s everyday lives is rarer than the opportunity of watching yet another reworking of Shakespeare, Chekhov or Tennessee Williams. Now, though, and until the end of the month, theatergoers have the chance to enjoy a first-class example of this neglected genre, in a reprise of acclaimed playwright Ai Nagai’s 2001 award-winning “Konnichi Wa Kasan (Hello Mum)” at the New National Theater.
Nagai, 52, sets her story in a typical household in downtown Tokyo, where she vividly brings alive a series of episodes and weaves them together with her witty and incisive humor. Just as Yasujiro Ozu’s films about ordinary folk find appreciative audiences both at home and abroad, so, too, the beguilingly mundane goings-on here touch universal chords that resonate far beyond the Tokyo shitamachi where the play is set.
For the most part, the drama plays out in the living room of a little wooden house where the heroine, an old widow named Fukue Kanzaki (Haruko Kato), has lived for years. Neighbors are forever popping in and out. Cluttered and homely, the set designed by Hajime Ota transports us right there, offering a glimpse of neighboring houses, clothes hung out on a rooftop and the steps going up to an apartment behind.
From the characters’ conversations, we also learn things about the house, such as drawings of The Beatles on the walls in the bathroom and an upstairs toilet that are forever a talking point over cups of green tea. They were done by Kanzaki’s only son, Akio (Mitsuru Hirata), when he was a teen, and though he’s now in his 40s and has long since left home, they remain something to chat about.
The play opens as Akio returns for a visit after two years in which he’s been so busy with his work and life that he’s had hardly any contact with his mother. In these two years, though, a lot has changed. His mother has finally adapted to living alone and has taken her life in unexpected new directions.
When Akio enters his familiar old house through the back garden as he’s done since childhood, he is initially mistaken for a robber by a Chinese student, Li Yien (Moeko Koyama), who now lives next door. As they chat, she tells him that his mother has become a member of a volunteer group called Hinageshi-no kai (Field Poppy Society), and is active in arranging for foreign students to board with mostly older people in the neighborhood. Another volunteer, Li tells a taken-aback Akio, is Kotoko (Miyako Taoka), a free-thinking middle-aged woman he last knew when she was married to a Swede, and yet another is Sayuri (Yukiko Tachibana), a childhood friend of his who now runs a senbei (rice-cracker) shop.
Akio’s surprise turns to shock, however, when he meets another member of the group who is clearly the agent of his mum’s recent rejuvenation. This is Naobumi (Hiroyuki Nishimoto), a retired professor she met on a literature course she attended, and who is now clearly her lover.
Worn out from the recent breakup of his marriage and the stress of his job at a big car company — where he has to sack many close colleagues and now fears for his own future as well — Akio is astonished at the vitality he finds in his mother’s life and the neighborhood around her.
At first Akio finds it hard to accept the huge change in his mother, struggling in particular with the idea that she could be involved in a new romance. As Nagai’s wonderfully written play progresses, however, we see Akio gradually coming to admire his mother’s previously hidden talents, and her charm and independence.
As the play is drawing to a close, Akio is dealt the blow by his employer that he has most feared. While previously this would have probably driven him over the edge, thanks to what he’s learned since his homecoming he has become strong enough to pick up the pieces and look forward himself to forging a new and different life.
Excellently crafted, without effects or melodrama, this play superbly demonstrates that it’s the “small stuff” of life that, after all, really matters. In this way, “Konnichi Wa Kasan” echoes Chekhov.
Also, though, the play is very Japanese in its context, touching on such up-to-the-minute issues as middle-aged divorce and redundancy, social interaction with foreigners, the maza-con (mother-complex) phenomenon, worsening family communications and, last but far from least, new romantic relationships in the “graying” population.
Ultimately, though, the play is driven by people rather than issues. Thus the generation gap between those who, like Fukue, lived through the war, and those like Akio who grew up after it, is expressed through the use of Akio’s favorite early Beatles hits as the play’s soundtrack. Those drawings on the walls, we come to understand, were the attempts of a misunderstood child to express himself to uncomprehending parents.
Though all the actors here perform effortlessly, Kato’s Fukue in particular is a superb embodiment of the “good old days” in Japan, when people trusted each other and never locked their doors. A bonus, too, is Koyama’s Li, whose idiosyncratic Japanese made the audience roar with laughter.
I am delighted to report that audiences abroad will be seeing more of Nagai’s work, through a collaboration between the playwright and the Bush Theatre (see The Japan Times, Feb. 25), where she took one of her plays for a workshop in 2001. The groundbreaking plan is to mount simultaneous stagings of a new play by Nagai in an English version in London and in the original form in Tokyo in 2005. The declared aim is to create something that, while being Japanese in origin, crosses international boundaries, offering audiences the chance to participate in something universal. Watch this space!