Clever plot of “Dumb Animal” play

by Nobuko Tanaka

It was two years ago, that the three main actors in “Donju (Dumb Animal),” currently running at the Parco Theater, met up over a drink or three. Arata Furuta, Katsuhisa Namase and Narushi Ikeda, are all now in their late 30s and early 40s, but were very prominent in the energetic 1980s Shogekijo (small theater) movement. Although they had gone their separate ways for a decade or more, they started to talk about working together.

The middle-aged trio, who rose to prominence in the ’80s, then contacted one of the most “happening” dramatists in Japan, 34-year-old Kankuro Kudo, and asked him to create a play for them.

The contact was worthwhile. Multitalented Kudo, (author of the 2002 Nihon Academy Award-winning scriptwriter of the mega-hit movie “Go,” about the identity problems of a Korean-Japanese teenager) answered their call and penned this darkly offbeat, strangely slapstick mystery just for them.

And, as the trio said in a recent interview, this collaboration has done nothing but good, both for Kudo and for the director of “Donju,” 35-year-old Masahiko Kawahara, whom they look forward to working with again. The three male actors have also co-opted some great female counterparts in this absurd mystery.

The story centers on the mysterious and sudden disappearance of a young novelist called Dekogawa (Ikeda), whose name in kanji refers to his uniquely “dull” character, providing a clue to the plot and a link to the title of the play.

To try to find out what has happened to him, his editor, Shizuka (Naomi Nishida), goes to a little local bar run by his old friend Eda (Furuta), where Dekogawa had recently become a regular. There, Shizuka finds out that Dekogawa and Eda, and another regular called Okamoto (Namase), were all classmates through junior high school. She also finds out that they share a secret from a summer holiday when they were all teenagers but she and we do not yet know what it is.

Back then, when he was 14, Dekogawa cut off his relationship with the other two. Then he recently reappeared at Eda’s bar. In between, he’s succeeded in having his first novel published as a series in weekly magazines; the novel has heavily autobiographical undertones and is starting to attract media attention.

Concerned about the potential disclosure of their childhood secret, Eda and his mistress Junko (Maho Nonami), the bar mama-san, together with Okamoto and the bar hostess, Nora (Otoha), all plan to kill Dekogawa.

Editor Shizuka, whose role is also that of narrator, often retelling the events of the story as reminiscence, interviews these characters to try and work out the truth. She finds out that his old friends have tried to kill Dekogawa in numerous and often slapstick, ridiculous ways. But it’s not even as simple, or complex, as that.

As the action develops, mostly in Eda’s bar, it emerges that back in their youth the group used to test their mettle by running in front of trains. And maybe Dekogawa was hit. Or was he? And is Dekogawa now spilling the beans? Or is it not he, but another former friend now using a pen-name? It’s very confusing, but clear enough in the end.

Presented in two acts, the first half of the play is mainly lighthearted, with lots of jokes and bonhomie. Then, in the second act, it gently shades into mystery and veers into something just short of ominous horror. Having been drawn into Kudo’s cleverly constructed plot, and lulled into the ridiculous and puzzling, the audience is presented with a theatrical event as absorbing as it is perplexing.

It is well-acted, not only by the three male principals who brought it all about, but also by the three really excellent female leads, especially the hilarious bar hostess Nora, played by Otoha.