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U.K. ‘samurai’ lands in Japan

by Nobuko Tanaka

When U.S. President Barack Obama bowed to the Emperor during his visit to Japan last month, the headline of The Japan Times read: “U.S. conservatives: Obama bowed too deeply to Emperor.” While some Americans accused the U.S. commander in chief of “groveling to a foreign leader,” however, the Japanese and the country’s vernacular media were full of praise for Obama’s “correct” conduct.

Such rigid Japanese ideas of what is “correct” behavior are likely familiar to many non-native readers: Ever entered a Japanese home to the agonized howls of Japanese friends when you waltz in without taking your shoes off? Or been baffled by the uniformly polite service received at every turn?

If such first encounters with Japanese culture and customs still shock some newcomers, imagine how alien this land and people must have seemed to some of the first Westerners to arrive in Japan 400 years ago, when, driven by storms and bad luck, the Dutch ship Liefde was forced to land on the shores of Zipangu.

Among those aboard the Liefde was Japan’s first English visitor — William Adams (1564-1620), a ship’s carpenter and navigator from Gillingham in southeast England. His arrival at Kuroshima in the Kyushu domain of the Lord of Bungo (present-day Oita Prefecture) was to begin one of the first cultural exchanges between Japan and the West.

In April 1600, some 19 months after leaving Rotterdam, Adams and 24 survivors of the Liefde’s originally 100-strong crew found themselves being forced to explain their arrival to Portuguese Jesuit missionaries already established in Japan. As Protestants, Adams and his fellow shipmates were quickly accused of being enemies of the state by the missionaries who attempted to have them executed.

Adams’ knowledge of shipbuilding, however, impressed the first Tokugawa Shogun, Ieyasu, and instead of being executed, he gained the shogun’s trust, becoming one of his closest advisers and the first foreigner to be elevated to the rank of samurai. Japan was unified under Ieyasu in 1603 and Adams became known as one of its pillars.

Soon after he entered the shogun’s service, Ieyasu declared William Adams’ English identity as dead and he was given the Japanese name Anjin Miura. Though he was allowed to marry a Japanese woman and start a family, he was still restricted from leaving the country. Adams, however, never stopped thinking of his homeland, where he already had a wife and children who he was never able to see before his death at age 55, in Hirado (present-day Nagasaki Prefecture).

This dramatic tale is about to be retold to Tokyo theatergoers through “ANJIN English Samurai,” with no less than Gregory Doran, chief associate director of the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), at the helm.

Doran, 51, says he first heard the story of Adams when he brought an RSC “Othello” here five years ago and was particularly struck by the fact that an Englishman was present at the birth of unified Japan in 1603, which he describes as “a turning point for Japan like the Battle of Hastings was for England in 1066.” Adams’ birth being in the same year as William Shakespeare’s, and Ieyasu and the Bard both dying in 1616 were other coincidences that peaked Doran’s interest, which eventually grew into this historic production co-written by Mike Poulton and Shoichi Kawai. “ANJIN English Samurai” is the first-ever large-scale international theater collaboration between Japan and England that is both bilingual and features a cast of British and Japanese actors speaking their own language.

W hen I visit Doran at the show’s rehearsal studio, he gives off an air of effortless friendliness, bidding “good morning” to Japanese and British actors passing through the rehearsal studio, all dressed in kimono and with katana (Japanese swords) tucked into their belts.

“It has been a long journey,” Doran says when asked about the conception of “ANJIN.” “But ‘who dares wins’ (motto of Britain’s Special Air Service) I suppose,” he continues with a laugh.

“I think the most difficult thing was to decide what story we wanted to tell. I didn’t want to do it as just a sort of Western-perspective story, like some kind of Hollywood movie. I wanted to be able to tell the story from both perspectives and I was very keen to have Japanese and English writers collaborating together.”

Doran’s experience with Shakespeare, his knowledge of the Bard’s sense of structure and the “balance in the way he goes from the epic to the intimate,” he says, is also important to this work: “I wanted to apply something of that aesthetic. Like in ‘Henry IV,’ you go from great battle scenes to (the comic relief of) Falstaff and his cronies. So, it took us quite a long time to develop which tales to tell and how to distill the story down.”

It is this Shakespearean influence that allows “ANJIN,” which Doran insists is not a documentary but a historical drama, to elaborate on the truth. “To some extent, some of the events may not be precisely historically true,” he admits, “but they are sort of supertrue, super-real — like what Shakespeare did with Egyptian history in ‘Anthony and Cleopatra.’ And I hope they point toward a greater truth.”

This explains the addition of the fictional character of a young Japanese Jesuit priest named Domenico (Tatsuya Fujiwara), who occupies the third central role alongside that of Adams (Owen Teale) and Ieyasu (Masachika Ichimura). Domenico plays an important role in conveying relevant parts of history and background to the audience, but his inner struggle — a man divided between his position as the son of samurai, an epitome of Japaneseness, and his Christian calling — also mirrors that of Adams, a man whose heart is forever divided between England and his new homeland of Japan.

Tatsuya Fujiwara, 27, can no doubt draw on personal experience for the role of Domenico, whose character also conveniently serves as a translator to Adams. At age 15, Fujiwara made a sensational stage debut at the Barbican Theatre in London in Shuji Terayama’s avant-garde “Shintokumaru” (“Poison Boy”), directed by Yukio Ninagawa. He is well aware that with “ANJIN,” he is again breaking new theatrical ground with the performance of his bilingual character, a role that he says he is enjoying building up by exploring in his own mind “the turning points in his life and how he tried to outgrow his old self.”

However, when asked about preparing for this unusual role, he confesses, “Honestly, it’s not easy.”

“I have to think about things I’d never have thought about if I was acting solely in my mother tongue. For instance, in Japanese I can naturally emphasize lines if I think they need it, but in English, I’m not yet sure whether my intonation sounds right or natural. Right now, I am concentrating on my English lines with Greg (Doran) and the other English actors.”

F or the British actors, coming to Japan is as much a cultural introduction as the play they represent.

Welshman Owen Teale, 48, who plays the British lead of William Adams, says that even though he has only been here for a couple of weeks, he is already finding things that are making him fall in love with Japan: “There is respect here; for example, I don’t feel any aggressions on the train and people’s lives seem much more calm. It’s so different from London, where I normally live and work, because here you don’t see many Westerners and only very few black people. It makes me feel London is very special, as it’s evolving a culture representing the world . . . but that it comes with lots of problems, too.”

Though he gladly accepted Doran’s offer to take the play’s main role, Teale admits he’s beginning to feel that it could be one of the biggest challenges of his career: “It’s a great responsibility and an honor for me to play Anjin. In a sense, I could imagine me staying and living here in Japan and starting a new life, like Anjin who also had a whole other life in England. If we do this play in England, I would like them to see a great and unique moment in Japanese history as well as an Englishman’s very divided internal feelings — like Hamlet.”

Had he been faced with the dilemma of whether to stay or return to England, as Adams did later in his life in Japan, Teale says, “Honestly, I still don’t know what’s the answer. . . . I am keeping an open mind at the moment, and when I get on stage, I’ll just say Adams’ line, ‘I shall stay where I am,’ in whatever way feels right.”

His faith in the play, the way Doran works and the respect with which he treats all those involved is clear: “Greg is a calm authority in the rehearsal room and he has a great vision. He’s never rushed and he takes everything slowly. So, we read it, we read it again, and we talk about it scene by scene, then he asks the actors for their opinions. There is a lot of collaboration all round.”

As Teale gets ready to leave to go and change into the English samurai, such lofty considerations of identity were hardly uppermost in his mind. “What I miss most about home,” he confesses, “are English baked potatoes, and ramen at the Wagamama restaurant in London.”

“ANJIN English Samurai” runs from Dec. 10 till Jan. 18 at the Ginga / Galaxy Theater, a 3-minute walk from Tennoz Isle Station on the Rinkai or Tokyo Monorail lines. For more details, call Horipro at (03) 3490-4949 or visit hpot.jp or anjin-englishsamurai.com
Nobuko Tanaka’s theater blog (in Japanese) is at http://thestage.cocolog-nifty.com