Tohoku school’s plays tell how it is

by Nobuko Tanaka

Special To The Japan Times

“We always start creating our next work by having a meeting with everyone involved in the drama club,” high school teacher Michiko Ishii explained.

“We discuss what is actually happening around us and what we should focus on in the next play. So, what we create actually comes out of our daily lives.”

It was no different when Ishii, 50, and her students launched into their latest project last May — an original work now titled “Ahiruzuki 13 (Duck Month 13)” that had its premiere last month before packed audiences at the Oji Fringe Theatre in Tokyo. But over this coming weekend of March 20-22, comes the acid test — when the school-age cast perform “Ahiruzuki 13″ as part of “I-Play Fes 2014″ on their home ground in Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture.

After the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11, 2011, and the tsunami and nuclear disasters that followed, the initial response of drama-club members at Iwaki Integrated High School was to write and perform “Final Fantasy for XI.III.MMXI (F.F).”

That play — whose structure drew on the role-playing computer game “Final Fantasy” — vividly portrayed the students’ daily lives at that time. Its impact was so great, in fact, that it became a hot topic across Japan’s theater world, where it was widely lauded as the most realistic play about the disaster, and toured extensively around the country.

Next, in 2012, the same Iwaki drama club created “Kitakosha (North-side Schoolhouse) Happy Set,” which was about how to face new friends evacuated from the disaster area. Now, this year’s “Ahiruzuki 13″ delves into what life has been like for the group’s members in the three years since 3/11.

Ishii explained that Iwaki City, whose May 2011 population was around 338,000, had accepted more evacuees from tsunamii-devasted and radiation-affected areas of the northestern Tohoku region of Honshu than anywhere else, while lots of outside workers had also moved in to labor at the prefecture’s stricken nuclear plant.

“People with very different levels of suffering are living side by side in Iwaki today,” Ishii pointed out. “And the same situation is reflected in classrooms and in the drama club, too. Some students lost their houses and families in the tsunami, while some didn’t suffer at all and can live now just as they did before.

“So, inevitably, there are huge gaps between people’s recovery rates. For example, back in May 2013, when we started discussing making a new play for this year, one student suggested it should be about the way many people in Fukushima are now starting to forget about 3/11.

“That led us on to discussing how it’s not only individuals like us who are banishing all that from our minds, but also everyone around the country. So we started to make lots of impromptu scenes from the students’ daily exchanges with others — and that finally came to fruition as ‘Ahiruzuki 13.’ “

Talking to this writer recently, Toshiki Hichiwa, who actually proposed the theme at the meeting, said, “We made lots of vignettes stemming from the keyword ‘banishing,’ but at first nothing worked out.

“Back then, though, I think I was only approaching it theoretically in my head — until one day I literally just looked around and saw all the temporary housing for the nuclear plant’s clean-up workers.

“That was when I quite starkly realized what my everyday life actually feels like. Since then, I have been carefully observing the townscape and the residents of Iwaki, and I’ve fed those impressions into the play.”

On stage, Hichiwa essentially acts himself, mumbling: “Will I forget about those people I used to be so close to? Sh-t! I shouldn’t! But I know I will forget them one day.” And, as in his real life, on stage Hichiwa constantly carries a camera with which he strives to record his life.

At the end of this month, Hichiwa will enter Obirin University in Tokyo to study theater. Asked why he chose that major, he said, “I remember Ishii-sensei told us that, fundamentally, people can’t understand each other, but theater has a magic power to connect us all. I think that recently I’ve come to understand something of that power, so that’s why.”

Unlike Hichiwa, Kazuki Chiiro, who also graduates this month, isn’t continuing with drama but will enter a college to qualify as a childcare worker. Nonetheless, she takes with her powerful experiences gained on stage.

“I wanted the audiences to realize how embarrassed I was when I became aware of my careless attitude to classmates suffering deeply from the disaster,” she confessed. “I wrote my lines from my own experience, and I hope they may waken audiences up a bit to their own insensibility in their daily lives.”

Though Ishii is employed as an art-expression teacher at the school — whose drama course is one of very few in Japan, and the first in Tohoku — she doesn’t just teach the 20-odd students on that course, she is also actively engaged with the drama club that creates a new original work every year.

As to why schools should be bothered with drama at all, Ishii — from her 10 years’ experience — explained, “In this digital era, children often play Internet games with friends and others. They think that’s real communication, but it’s not. Also, because of their insular, high pride, they are afraid of being hurt emotionally, so they hardly ever reveal their true feelings.

“However, I feel schools should take the lead in encouraging children’s physical and human communication through theater, and I believe many problems such as bullying and ostracism would be solved that way.”

After talking with Ishii and the two students, I got to watch the drama class preparing for the end-of-term exam, in which each member would have to deliver a monologue about themselves. Straight off, a young woman named Maaya Katayose started to vent her feelings about her mother and brother, and how she senses she ranks much lower in her mother’s eyes than him.

As she was speaking, she gradually became emotional and her eyes filled up, even as Ishii and the club members looked on fondly. Afterward, though, she looked much refreshed, and I saw a little smile on her face.

“I think we all need art now, and especially people in Fukushima,” Ishii observed. “As everyone’s experience is different, we can’t all share the same feeling about 3/11 — but we can all exchange our opinions after seeing ‘Ahiruzuki 13.’ That’s the great thing about art: it helps us to imagine others’ feelings.

“So I hope many people will come to Iwaki this weekend to share all our feelings at ‘I-Play Fes 2014,’ ” Ishii urged, referring to the three-day event featuring top-rank companies from Tokyo and beyond — and yet another staging of “Ahiruzuki 13.”

“I-Play Fes 2014″ runs March 20-22 at Iwaki Performing Arts Center Alios and other venues around JR Iwaki Station. For details, call Alios at (0246) 22-5800 or visit iplayfes.exblog.jp.