NEW YORK – About 30 years ago, Michi Yamamura was an aspiring actress who was about to end her brief stint with a Tokyo-based theater company in line with a promise she made her mother, who believed her daughter should have a “regular job” with a stable income.
Having understood her mother’s concern, which stemmed partly from her struggle of single parenthood after Yamamura’s father died when she was 3, the Tsuda College graduate changed her career goal to broadcasting, becoming a newscaster with Fuji Television Network Inc. in 1980.
But today, Yamamura, 51, has achieved something few people, including herself, thought would be possible by performing an original two-person play, which she wrote, in an off-Broadway theater in New York for English speakers, a feat few Japanese have accomplished.
“The reactions of American audiences were so direct . . . they laughed and cried with handkerchiefs in their hands, even on days when we had terrible problems with the sound and lighting devices,” Yamamura recently said at her apartment in Midtown Manhattan. “That really gave me confidence about my script.”
A native of Ise, Mie Prefecture, Yamamura has come a long way from having given up acting, becoming one of Japan’s pioneers in New York’s extremely competitive performing arts scene.
Soon after joining Fuji TV, Yamamura became one of the first generation of female announcers in Japan.
“It was a new phenomenon,” she said. “I was just a regular employee of a TV station, but often got surrounded by people on my way to work.”
Yamamura enjoyed her job, but being frequently called to do short sketches on air rekindled her passion for acting. She left Fuji in 1985 at the height of her popularity to focus on acting.
Having proven her theatrical skills, the transition was smooth. But being a full-time actress soon became frustrating as all her roles tended to be similar. “The mean, cold-hearted and intelligent type . . . such as a teacher, or a lawyer. There was absolutely no chance I could be a stripper. It was a depressing time,” Yamamura recalled. “It was around this time I realized I needed reading glasses and also that I would be childless.”
One day during a movie shoot, a young actress approached Yamamura and suggested they do a play together. Yamamura halfheartedly read the script but instantly knew it needed an overhaul.
Yamamura wrote an entirely new script herself, giving birth to the play “Watashi to Watashi to Anata to Watashi” (“I & Me and You and I”).
The play revolves around two women who would not normally meet — Yoko, a middle-aged, snobbish banker at the end of her tether, and Potan, a young, air-headed stripper. The story unfolds as the two inadvertently find themselves in the same Tokyo hotel room and are forced to address some extraordinary situations together.
Providing rich insights into contemporary Japan through its hilarious and at times suspenseful dialogue, the play debuted in 2002 in Tokyo and had a successful rerun there in 2003.
But later that year, Yamamura’s newly revived acting career went back to square one after her husband was posted to New York for a job. Yamamura said she initially took the news with a heavy heart, but eventually decided to take the move positively and followed her husband.
In New York, Yamamura initially filled her time studying acting and painting. But she said she could not help but feel a sense of loss about her career. It was around this time friends encouraged her to consider doing the play in English, saying the story has universal appeal.
A major hurdle was translating the script, which is full of puns and jokes that mirror today’s Japanese culture.
For example, in one scene, Potan, the stripper, struggles to come up with the word “trauma” after listening to a story about Yoko’s hot-blooded father.
Although there is a Japanese phrase for the English word “trauma,” most Japanese simply say “torauma,” a homonym of “tora” (tiger) and “uma” (horse). In the Japanese version, Potan says: “I know. I know what we call that . . . “hebiuma” (snake-horse), “hyouma” (leopard-horse) . . . “nekouma” (cat-horse)!”
Aside from making an up-to-date English translation, preserving the integrity of the two characters was her key concern. Yamamura consulted with an army of volunteers, including American scriptwriters, before eventually settling on “grammar . . . drama . . . Dalai Lama!”
But translation was only one problem. Yamamura said American production staff tended to stress clarity, which often led to debate about simplifying the story.
“Every day, it was like fighting a battle,” she said.
But judging from the audience reaction, the effort seems to have paid off.
“The play was very funny and the idea was fresh,” Olga Zoria, a real estate broker, said of the play, which ran for about a week in Manhattan last November.
“I found it entertaining, funny, and at times quite touching,” said Hiroko Kiiffner, a book publisher.
“I think the production has human appeal — it addresses issues that people are concerned about, no matter where they live or grew up,” actress Vicky Devany said.
Yamamura said she believes a minor modification in the characters’ background, like making Yoko an investment banker and Potan a dancer, would make the play entirely suitable for a U.S. troupe.
“This play is like my child,” Yamamura said. “My sincere hope is that it will one day walk on its own feet and be performed by American theater groups long after I leave New York.”