A mother alone

Misako Watanabe's long-running solo work

by Nobuko Tanaka

To launch Za Koenji, the new public theater in Suginami Ward designed by Toyo Ito, artistic director Makoto Sato made the bold decision to present “Keshou Two Acts” (“Makeup”), a one-woman play by renowned writer and director Hisashi Inoue that stars Misako Watanabe. Now 76, the veteran actress first performed the 90-minute play 27 years ago and has taken it through at least one run every year since then, including two tours of Japan and ones in Europe, North America and Southeast Asia.

“Keshou” is about the leader of a Taishu Engeki theater group (of which there are around 150 in Japan today). These touring family troupes stage samurai dramas followed by traditional dances in kimono, after which audience members often throw money on the stage.

As “Keshou” opens, Watanabe — solo — plays Yoko Satsuki, the heroine of one such troupe, who is putting on her thick stage makeup and chatting away with others when an unexpected visitor arrives. A young pop singer, he says he is her son who was put up for adoption as a baby. The revelation launches a wistful remembrance with a bitter twist.

How did audiences receive “Keshou” in 1982?

Solo shows were very rare then, so we — the director and producer Koichi Kimura, the author Hisashi Inoue and myself — were very much feeling our way through our rehearsals, and I couldn’t wait to see how audiences would react. I wasn’t sure how to play all the invisible people and to use an invisible mirror for my makeup. I needn’t have worried, though, because after the first night, I realized that the audience had a brilliant imagination and could understand everything through one actor’s expressions. Inoue was so amazed about the audiences’ imagination, without which this play wouldn’t work. So, this is a magic play.

Is this production any different from previous ones?

The stage is about 30 percent bigger than the ones I usually play this on, so Kimura made a new set this time, and I have to move around more.

Otherwise, over the years I have gone from mainly depicting the sorrow of a woman who gave up her child for her career to adding emphasis on the woman’s toughness and her positive attitude to life. So the play has become more hopeful, probably due to my age. I thought she couldn’t be too miserable as she had to continue her life anyway, so I have come to act the heroine Yoko Satsuki as a lively, inspiringly mad person.

You will perform this role for the 600th time during this Tokyo run. Have you never got bored with it?

Of course some days I feel a bit tired to be on the stage, but I’ve never got tired of acting this play. It is so well written that I am always finding new things in it. Also, it’s not just a monologue about a woman’s feelings, because it’s full of visually appealing scenes as well — such as putting on stage makeup without a real mirror and putting on a kimono by throwing it up in the air and having it come down perfectly over my head and shoulders. So I always enjoy trying to develop the physical acting scenes.

Also, because I’ve been living with Yoko Satsuki most of my acting life, I’ve been aware of her existence even when I’ve been acting in other plays or movies, and I have tried not to act like her in any other roles. But “Keshou” has been an important part of my life, and I take care of my physical condition so I will be able to go on acting Satsuki for a long time.

Despite the language barrier, why do you think “Keshou” has been so well received in foreign countries?

First of all, for the same reason it’s had such a long run in Japan: Because it’s about a mother and motherhood. It’s a universal theme, isn’t it?

However, in foreign countries I often thought the audiences felt the stage was superimposed on their own lives. In places such as the United States, there are more divorces and more people adopting children than in Japan, so many of them can relate their own experience directly to Satsuki’s.

One time, an adopted person in an audience in America could not leave her seat afterward and said the play had made her understand the “grandeur of motherhood.” Another time, an old man came to my dressing room after a performance and asked me if he should find the real mother of his adopted child or not. So I think the play moves many people based on their real-life experiences, and because of this universality, “Keshou” is not greatly affected by language differences or an actor’s skill, for instance. Besides, it’s an uptempo comedy with lots of physical movement for people to enjoy.

Satsuki says that “actors are professionals who sell dreams to people.” How do you define the role of an actress?

I can’t summarize it with a catchy phrase in one breath. But, if I think why baseball games can give so much inspiration to ordinary people, then I suppose the players’ dedication is a big part of it. So, I also try to go all out in my job, and I would be happy if my energy gave some support in the audiences’ daily lives. That’s my only wish.

“Keshou Two Acts” runs till May 31 at Za Koenji Public Theatre, a 3-minute walk from JR Koenji Station. It then tours Japan from Sept. 29, starting in Yamanashi. For more information, call Za Koenji Public Theatre at (03) 3233-7300 or visit za-koenji.jp