HIDEKI NODA, MARCELLO MAGNI

Bringing the outsiders onto the stage

by Nobuko Tanaka

“Who are we?” and who are “the others”? And how should “we” associate with “them”? Written in 1996 by Hideki Noda, Japan’s leading contemporary dramatist, this is one of the central themes of “Red Demon.” It premiered in Japan with English actor Angus Burnett in the title role, before being staged in Thailand and then England, and was previously reviewed by me.

“Red Demon” is now being offered up in three languages at Theatre Cocoon in Shibuya. It therefore gives audiences three takes on this absorbing, universal work: one in English with English and European actors, one in Thai with Thai actors; and one in Japanese with Japanese actors.

All three versions are directed by Noda, who also takes the lead in the English and Thai versions and plays Tombi in the Japanese version.

“Red Demon” is set in a small fishing village, cut off from just about everywhere. We first meet an ostracized woman only referred to as That Woman. She is shunned by the villagers because her ancestors were migrants. Her fellow “others” are her half-wit brother Tombi and their friend, a con man named Mizukane.

While walking on the beach together, the trio find a castaway who speaks a different language and, with his ruddy complexion, looks different from the locals. Themselves outsiders in their village, the three try to communicate with the stranger, who is at once dubbed “Red Demon” by the other villagers and rumored to be a cannibal.

Before long, That Woman starts to learn his language, and the four are soon sharing jokes. Meanwhile, the other villagers observe the Red Demon suspiciously from a distance. They decide to destroy both him and That Woman, and confine them in a cave, while they lay their plans.

However, Tombi and Mizukane free the pair, and all four set sail in a small boat for an unknown, faraway future. But out at sea, conditions are terrible. Though the four experience a kind of hopeless euphoria, the Red Demon dies.

The others are also close to death when Mizukane, with his innate guile, concocts shark-fin soup to sustain them until they at last drift back to the village.

After being offered the same dish at home, That Woman comes to realize the terrible truth. That and disillusionment with people and life, propels her to jump off a cliff. The others survive: Tombi declares that it’s because he is stupid that he can carry on; while Mizukane retreats into himself.

After seeing all three versions of “Red Demon,” I interviewed its writer, director and leading actor Hideki Noda. I then interviewed the Italian actor Marcello Magni, who plays Tombi in the English version.

Hideki, how did you get the idea for “Red Demon”?

When I visited a small island in the southernmost part of Japan, in Okinawa, I stayed at a small inn, but the landlady was so dismal that I moved out after a few nights.

Then I asked my new landlady why the other one was so miserable, and she said right away that it was because she was an outsider. I was so surprised there was discrimination even in such a cozy island. It made me think then that humans’ basic nature makes them want to create their own small world with themselves in the center of it. That was the beginning of this “Red Demon” play.

So, “Red Demon” is usually seen as a story of culture clash or discrimination. Is that your understanding?

I think there are many different ways to read the play. When I worked with Thai actors in Thailand, the Red Demon was taken naturally to be an outsider from the local village or small community, which was very similar to how it was understood in Japan.

Then, when I worked with English actors, I found that Europeans had no ready-made image of the Red Demon. They have a mixed-race cultural background, so I could not portray the Red Demon simply as being different-looking, with a big body or different color, because they just pointed to each other as being “the others.”

So then I thought it was all right for a small, ordinary Asian guy like me to play the role without any problems.

In the Japanese version, “the others” were so clear, but at the Young Vic Theatre in London, it seemed that some people in the audience were confused by what they represented.

I suppose that English audiences wanted me to define “the others” more clearly. But I wanted them to define who is the Red Demon for themselves.

Some minor critics, too, asked a superficial question about why the village people were frightened of a small, shabby Japanese in an anorak (the Red Demon’s costume), but they missed the point, I think.

Ironically, however, I think that highlights a weakness in the British theater world. They prefer to clearly identify something as the theme of a play, especially if they can easily find something socially relevant.

But to do that is just to take out one aspect of the play, and it renders the theatrical imagination more limited, more restricted.

Did you expect that kind of critical reaction in London?

Yes. When I showed the script to Kathryn Hunter, who is an Olivier Award-winning actress, she said she could not understand why there was no clear definition of the Red Demon.

I could understand why she said that, but I didn’t believe that was the purpose of the play. For example, I could have given a more specific definition, like saying, “The Red Demon is an American in 2020 who is discriminated against,” but if I made a concrete suggestion like that, the play would lose its main point as a fable. If somebody wants to think of the Red Demon like that, it’s OK but, at the same time, audiences who see these plays this time may take the Red Demon as, for example, a North Korean or a Muslim or whatever, depending on their social interests.

It’s that flexible definition that makes the Red Demon a universal fable.

Ms. Hunter came back to me after the show and said she was wrong, and she understood why it was a fable. And she agreed with my idea of the undefined Red Demon. On the other hand, I do like conflicts like that, and the variety of different opinions among London critics and audiences. In fact, Japanese people often incline to follow the majority opinion without dissenting. Nobody says, for example, “I don’t like this because it’s just a simple children’s parable.”

What is your purpose in doing these three versions at the same time?

If possible, I would like the same person to see all three plays, so they can see how very differently the same story ended up when people from different cultural backgrounds worked on the same script.

You say it ended up being completely different. Can you give an example?

For instance, in the Thai version, there were more songs and music, as music connected more deeply to Thai people’s daily lives. In the Japanese version, because I cast two quite young actors — Manami Konishi as That Woman and Koji Ohkura as Mizukane, inevitably this Red Demon was more relevant to the position of the young generation in Japan.

For example, That Woman could be someone who is not so interested in anybody else; very cool and indifferent to what others think. I would like these young actors to bring the consciousness of a new, cool Japanese generation successfully on to the stage.

At the risk of sounding “socially relevant,” how do you think we Japanese should relate from now on to our closest “others” — our neighbors from Korea?

Unfortunately, Japan’s modern relationship with Korea started at a time when Japan was exclusively nationalistic. So, we have to teach that history to the next generation in our schools, and certainly not allow people like Shintaro Ishihara, the nationalistic Tokyo governor, to get away with the kinds of things he says. From my position as a dramatist, I would like to continue tackling this issue of how to communicate with “the others” through working with actors from other countries in the future.

Marcello, how did you understand “Red Demon” the first time you read it?

I thought it was a tale, a beautiful, simple tale about human nature. I live in England, and I feel a bit like I am a Red Demon there. I am different, and I don’t speak English well, and I have an Italian accent. I feel sometimes inferior to native speakers, the English, as I do not have an English culture. So, for me, “Red Demon” was a story of how people can deal with such difference. Does “difference” become dangerous and, even more so, does it become a threat to people already in place? That was a question for me about “Red Demon.”

Did you have any problems working with Hideki?

The only problem was his time. The theater gave him too short a time to do the rehearsals. They gave him only a month, which is half as long as usual in England. But I never encountered such a broad-minded tolerant director before. He is a very democratic director; he is a great listener.