Lessons still unlearned

by Nobuko Tanaka

Timely or what! Just as Japan’s autocratic leaders appear to have junked war-renouncing Article 9 of the Constitution — with news last week of SDF aircraft even having transported armed U.S. soldiers into Iraq — along comes “Taiko Tataite Fue Fuite (Playing Drum and Flute),” which vividly portrays the average citizen’s helpless confusion as the government committed the nation’s last great military mistake.

Set in the 1930s, this play, which garnered several awards for the Komatsu-za theater company in 2002, takes the form of a biography of the popular authoress Fumiko Hayashi (1903-51), whose checkered life has inspired several stage works, notably Kazuo Kikuta’s 1961 “Hourou-ki (Wanderer’s Story).” That play — which shares its title with one of Hayashi’s novels — covers her eventful love life as she shot from obscurity to acclaim, and still regularly packs the Nagoya Chunichi theater with veteran actress Mitsuko Mori in the central role.

In “Taiko,” however, playwright Hisashi Inoue, Komatsu-za’s founder and the current president of the Japan Pen Club, is concerned with Hayashi as a woman rather than a star, examining her middle years when the traumatic changes in her outlook reflected those of postwar Japanese in general.

As the play begins, we see through a transparent curtain six people in silhouette. They then appear before the curtain and introduce themselves in song. As the play progresses, we’ll be treated to 11 more memorable songs by Seiichiro Uno, some original, some to music by Beethoven and other masters, and all accompanied by Park Seung Cheol on the piano.

The heroine, 32-year-old Fumiko (Shinobu Otake), has put her wayward 20s behind her and is now a trendy writer settled in suburban Tokyo in the home of her energetic mother, Kiku (Masayo Umezawa). Largely set in the living room of their house near Takadanobaba, the story unfolds as friends — including Miki (Katsumi Miki), Fumiko’s business adviser, and two young men who are friends of Kiku’s — visit them. The talk is of their individual futures and of the future of Japan that, buoyed by militaristic hubris en route to World War II, then appears bright.

Then Fumiko is enlisted by the government as a war correspondent when Japan attacks China in 1937. At first, she is enthusiastic, sending reports from Nanking and Kankou with a sense of mission, believing the war will improve Asia’s future. However, as she sees more of the reality of war, Fumiko becomes skeptical of the “god-emperor” ideology underlying her reports both from China and, after Pearl Harbor, from elsewhere in the Pacific theater. Finally just before war’s end, she is declared a “dangerous person” after saying in a lecture that Japan’s defeat was inevitable.

At this point divisions open up between her and her friends. For example, one of the two young men is strongly pro-government and fought in Manchuria, while the other, who was drafted to the front, is less sold on the official line. Through these exchanges, the play lays bare just how ordinary, well-meaning people came to be “playing drum and flute” to a propaganda-fueled agenda.

Finally, after the war, we see these others — like most Japanese — left bereft and bewildered, while Fumiko plunges into vigorous self-examination through her writings about her blind service to the militarists. However, this tormented process wears her out and leads to her early death, before her mother.

Sad, certainly, but with Inoue’s characteristic comic touches and those songs, this is quality entertainment, excellently performed — especially by Otake as Fumiko.

At a time like this, though, such a play can never be just entertainment. Fumiko’s radical stand resonates disturbingly into the present, with ordinary, decent Japanese now as misled and confused as their grandparents were. As they say, those who don’t learn the lessons of history are condemned to repeat it.