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Musical hails a messenger killed for exposing Japan’s dread trinity

by Roger Pulvers

When the Special Higher Police, the dreaded Tokko, returned his body to his mother and brother, it was hard to believe their official report that he had died of “a heart attack.”

The skin at his temples had been stripped away, and there were 12 wounds from what a physician friend described as “coming from a drill.” (The police had actually used metal brazier pokers on him.) His wrists and ankles bore rope marks from him having been suspended from a ceiling; and his lower torso, pubic area and thighs had turned an awful purple color from “relentless beating.” The police had even taken the trouble to break his right index finger so that he would never write again.

This was the tragic end to the short life of author and agitator, Takiji Kobayashi (1903-33).

Recently, there has been a colossal revival of interest in the life and work of Japan’s most famous advocate and practitioner of proletarian literature. Since last year, a reissued volume of stories containing his novella “Kani Kosen” (“The Cannery Boat”) has become a runaway best seller; and a movie based on the story — a remake of one made in 1953 — was released this July.

Now, the leading playwright and author Hisashi Inoue has written a musical about Kobayashi that opened last week at the Galaxy Theatre at Tennozu Isle in Tokyo.

“Kumikyoku Gyakusatsu (Suite Slaughter)” presents Inoue’s brilliant, contemporary take on an era when fascism was crushing democracy and overtaking Japan, with the Special Higher Police, by the late 1920s, clamping down maliciously on all leftwing activity. The very first line of “The Cannery Boat” finds a fisherman exclaiming to a shipmate in Hakodate harbor, Hokkaido, “Hey, we’re all bound for hell!” — an apt description of Japan’s course in the late 1920s and early ’30s.

A child of humble origins, Kobayashi was raised from age 4 in Otaru, Hokkaido. He became an activist in his early 20s and joined the outlawed Japanese Communist Party in 1931. His first stories were met with acclaim from the public, prompting the authorities to either ban them or permit publication with censorship. Indeed, one story of his from that time, titled “Tenkan Jidai” (“The Era of About-Faces”), appeared in the magazine Chuo Koron with one-fifth of it excised. And it’s clear why. Kobayashi identified with Japan’s poor, whom he saw as being exploited by laws designed to serve the rich and powerful.

“Suite Slaughter” follows Kobayashi from the time he was picked up for questioning in Osaka in May 1930 till his death three years later. Pursuing him are two undercover police, who, in the play, stoop at nothing to get their man. As is characteristic in Inoue’s plays — even the ones that treat such grim, tragic stories as this — there is much light wordplay and some slapstick. At times, these Japanese G-men act more like the Keystone Cops than the dreaded tormenters that they are. One even resorts to dressing up like Charlie Chaplin in a clandestine meeting with Kobayashi (who is also disguised as Charlie Chaplin).

If there is a lightness to Inoue’s plays, though, it is the lightness of the German playwright Bertolt Brecht, who used distancing effects such as out-of-character episodes, farcical humor and seemingly absurd turns of events to highlight the core message.

In “Suite Slaughter,” Inoue hones in on the era’s overriding theme: the domination of Japan by big money, the Emperor and the police. It is clear from early on in the piece that the playwright sees this trinity as a single entity dragging Japan toward the destruction of human rights, its invasion of the Chinese mainland and, eventually, all-out war.

In many of Inoue’s works, the fates of the victims and the victimizers are so interwoven that, at times, it becomes difficult to disentangle them. This underscores his humanistic approach to character. The evil actions that humans inflict on others often have their motivations in the psyche of the victimizer’s own past victimization.

Inoue has, in other plays, such as 1979′s “Deeply, Madly Japan — General Nogi,” confronted the issue of the country’s emperors and their responsibility in wartime. In “Suite Slaughter,” too, he makes it clear that the march toward fascism is being undertaken in the name of the Emperor, and that the policies and laws that drive it on are just “skillful trickery.” The Special Higher Police are referred to here as the law’s “guard dogs.”

I have been watching and studying Inoue’s plays for 40 years now, and “Suite Slaughter” contains some of the most beautiful dialogue I have heard in them.

“There are too many good people in the world for evil to exist,” says his Kobayashi character, “and too many evil people in the world for good to exist.”

In fact, Kobayashi, despite his descriptions of the exploitation of the workers by brutal bosses, was a kind of romantic. He met and fell in love with Taki Taguchi, whose stepfather had sold her into virtual sex slavery, and paid the money to free her.

“There is darkness, so there is light,” he wrote her in a letter.

One of the phrases that Inoue puts into Kobayashi’s mouth is “Don’t lose hope!” This resonates closely with another of his plays staged for the first time this year, “Musashi.” In both works the message is that violence achieves nothing but the perpetration of further violence.

Kobayashi, in one scene of “Suite Slaughter,” tells his wife to put down a gun that is pointed at the police. The great fight for equality in Japan must be won “by the force of words alone,” he declares.

The force of words, however, did not save Kobayashi. When his battered body was returned on Feb. 21, the day after his arrest and killing, Koreya Senda, the director at the Tsukiji Little Theatre in Tokyo, made a death mask of his face. Senda subsequently wrote, “The police used every means they had to block an autopsy, but it was as clear as day by looking at him that he had been the victim of torture.”

The director of “Suite Slaughter,” Tamiya Kuriyama — a step-grandson of Senda — says for his part that one of Inoue’s primary themes throughout his long writing career has been the question, “Why isn’t the right to lead a normal life given equally to all people?”

Perhaps more than any other play of his, this question is presented so dramatically here that Japanese leaders may finally begin to seriously ask themselves that self-same question.

If so, the words of Kobayashi — “Don’t lose hope!” — will resound from the page to the stage, and then, perhaps, to life itself.

“Suite Slaughter” runs at the Galaxy Theatre until Oct. 25. It then tours to Hyogo Performing Arts Center in Nishinomiya (Oct. 28-30) and the Kawanishicho Friendly Plaza in Yamagata (Nov. 1-2). For more details, visit www.komatsuza.co.jp