'PILLOWMAN'/'IKENIE NO HITO'

Satire booms in dark dramatic fantasies

by Nobuko Tanaka

Darwin tells us that mutation is the motor of evolution, and in the theater world the young playwright Martin McDonagh and the dramatist Matsuo Suzuki are each bringing a completely new approach to their art in Britain and Japan respectively.

As The Guardian’s critic Michael Billington put it, McDonagh has “built up an enviable reputation as a writer of postmodern melodramas and black comedies,” and much the same could be said of Suzuki in Japan, since the absurd satirical humor that is the hallmark of both, has struck a mighty chord with new young theater fans and the reverberations appear set to shake their countries’ established theatrical orders to the core.

Born to an Irish family living in Camberwell in South London, the 33-year-old McDonagh scooped this year’s Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Play with “The Pillowman.” A year after he presented McDonagh’s acclaimed play “The Lieutenant of Inishmore” as “Wee Thomas” at Parco Gekijo in Shibuya (see The Japan Times, Aug. 13, 2003), the same, gifted young director, 29-year-old Kieshi Nagatsuka, is back at the same venue to accrue the same acclaim with “The Pillowman.”

As the drama begins, we first see a short anime of a cute pink character with button eyes and a big smile bopping around to music. The screen then rises to reveal Katurian Katurian Katurian (KKK), a warehouse laborer and author of some 400 short stories (only one of which has been published) sitting blindfolded on a stool in a cell at a police station in an unnamed totalitarian state.

We soon learn that KKK is being questioned and tortured by two cops — Tupolski (Yoshimasa Kondo) and Ariel (Yuichiro Nakayama) — who are trying to extract his confession to the serial murder of three children. As this is going on, we hear screams and yells from the next door cell where KKK’s half-wit brother Michal (Hajime Yamazaki), a devoted fan of all of his short stories, is also being held.

The brothers, it turns out, have been arrested because the killings exactly mirror stories KKK has written, including one about a “Pillowman” who befriends abused children then kills them in order to spare them from carrying their burden through unhappy lives. As this whodunit slowly unfolds, however, it becomes clear that it is not just the child victims, but all these four main characters, who have suffered sexually and mentally at the hands of twisted parents.

The contrasts between the intimidation at the police station and KKK’s childhood reminiscences are vividly portrayed through the bare stage, furnished only with shadows for the former and a cozy playroom that opens, fanlike, as if from the pages of a storybook for the latter.

Hailed by British critics as a hilariously funny black comedy, “The Pillowman” has lost much of its humor in translation, but nonetheless comes across as a brilliantly absurd drama. This loss has its roots in language, since the F-words that are so key to the original simply have no Japanese equivalent. Futhermore, the play’s deranged cops are also difficult to comprehend by audiences for whom the contemporary police generally have a clean-cut and respected image.

Faced with such fundamental challenges, though, Nagatsuka has so carefully digested “The Pillowman” and given it a new lease of life here in Tokyo. This he achieves by downsizing the roles of the police and shedding much of the play’s overtly political dimension in favor of a compelling new focus on childhood traumas and their subsequent, wider social effects — both of which are topics close to the Japanese heart.

The result, while not “The Pillowman” of the original, is a memorable “Makuraman” for Japan, which in its evolved form is comparable with Hideki Noda’s recent production of “Red Demon” in three languages — Japanese, English and Thai — which also showed how the same gem of a storyline can be reworked into different dramas that have their own particular impact.

What “postmodern” Martin McDonagh is to British theater, Matsuo Suzuki could aptly be said to be in the world of Japanese drama.

While still only 41, the multitalented Suzuki has already brought his flair and versatility to a vast range of artistic forms. His latest outing as a film director, “Koi no Mon (Gate of Love)” is a superbly sketched take on modern youth culture set in the context of a hilarious melodrama. He is also a renowned and prolific script writer, stage director, film, TV and theater actor and essayist who, lately, has also debuted as a novelist.

Suzuki’s “Ikenie no Hito (Sacrifice Man),” is his first new play in nearly four years. It is set in a failing hot-spring resort currently being converted into a chain restaurant. The action covers the relationships between the establishment’s old and new staff.

In a play that really should not be missed Sadao Abe, as an ambitious wannabe boss, and Tom Miyazaki, as a Japanese who hilariously pretends to be a Westerner, deliver particularly superb performances.

charges full tilt at many of society’s core taboos, using both black and sexual jokes, a fake penis and a character whose jacket is emblazoned with “kichigai” — meaning “mad,” a word that is banned from repetition on TV or in newspapers. The result is a profoundly cynical, but hugely entertaining, assault on contemporary Japanese values that rate individuals by how much money they gain or lose, the signs of success they display and their standing in all societal groups.