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The old ones are the best

by Nobuko Tanaka

More than three years ago, theater director Sho Ryuzanji launched Paradise Ichiza, a professional company whose cast was comprised of veteran dramatists who had only ever before been involved off stage, as theater owners, lighting specialists, voice actors, directors or in academia. When Ryuzani, 61, assembled his Old Bunch, their average age was 80, and their oldest member, at 92, was director Ichiro Inui.

Paradise Ichiza was created because Ryuzanji realized there were hardly any theater companies in Japan for older people, despite the country’s fast and famed “graying.” But rather than searching for aging actors to fill that gap, his magic touch was to seek out old friends and acquaintances in the business who had seen so much but had never been on the bright side of the footlights.

In 2005, when Paradise Ichiza hit the stage with its debut program of 10 performances, the media latched on and made it a sellout event. Critics, too, hailed the Old Bunch’s “Elegy of Men” — a story about a group of gangsters who come out of retirement to avenge a comrade long ago driven to suicide by a crafty bank manager — despite a few fluffed and forgotten lines on opening night.

Next time around, in 2007′s “Hit Parade of Revenge,” the Old Bunch had markedly improved their acting skills. Displaying excellent teamwork and composure, they staged a second gangster tale — this time about the aging hoods meeting in an old people’s home to plan (and then carry out) their revenge on a former boss who had unjustly killed one of their comrades. Again they played to full houses — notably with high-pitched cheers coming from girls all over the auditorium. Indeed, their “Hit Parade” was such a success that fans besieged the theater and their performance was selected as one of the best of the year in several magazines.

But regrettably — despite strong support from many theater lovers — the Old Bunch’s upcoming third production will, Ruzanji said, really be their last. Titled “Carmen Comes Back to a Battlefield,” it starts in the mid-1980s in the dying days of Emperor Hirohito’s reign, when some old soldiers meet at a gay bar they frequent and decide to return to a battlefield in Burma to remember fallen comrades. Once there, in present-day Myanmar, their memorial trip turns into intense reconsideration of the meaning of World War II — and its connection to the state of the country.

As Ryuzanji says in the press release for this play, “The last three years have passed so quickly with the Old Bunch — and it has been a time of bliss.”

Be sure not to miss its swansong, and share in that special bliss, too.

“The Old Bunch: Carmen Comes Back to the Battlefield” runs till Feb. 15 at the Honda Theater, a 2-minute walk from Shimokitazawa Station on the Odakyu and Keio-Inokashira lines. For more details, call The Ryuzanji Company on (03) 5272-1785, or visit www.ryuzanji.com