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Hisashi Inoue: A great friend, writer, and people’s champion is gone

by Roger Pulvers

O n Friday, April 9, Hisashi Inoue died at the age of 75, and with his passing Japan lost its most brilliant playwright.

Hisashi — I shall use his given name, as we both always used our given names together — was my closest and dearest friend for more than 35 years. Numerous obituaries have already appeared in the media, but this is more of a personal reminiscence — and one that, I confess, has been difficult to write.

Hisashi was born in 1934 in Yamagata Prefecture, in the Tohoku region of northern Honshu, in a small town called Komatsu, known today as Kawanishi. When, in 1984, he founded his own theater organization in Tokyo dedicated to his work, he called it Komatsu-za, harking back to those provincial roots.

“I will never get out of my mind,” he told me back in the 1970s, “the suffering of the people of Tohoku who streamed into Tokyo for many decades before and after the war looking for work, uprooted and having to scrounge around for sustenance.”

One of the major themes — perhaps the primary theme — of his writing for the theater is the plight of the weak in their struggle to keep their head above water in a heartless, often ruthless, society. He never let his gaze slip from society’s dispossessed.

Hisashi lost his father to illness before he was 5, and his mother, unable to cope, sent him off to board in Sendai at a school run by the Catholic order of the De La Salle Brothers.

“I always have a soft spot for the brothers,” he said, “because they tilled the soil and got their hands dirty. They didn’t just preach devotion.”

Years later he published his sympathetic, if humorously caustic, portrait of just such a brother in his novel, “Mokkinpotto Shi no Atoshimatsu (The Fortunes of Father Mockinpott).” In the book, the warmhearted Father Mockinpott follows one of his wards to Tokyo to chastise him for working in a vaudeville theater where strip shows are part of the daily repertoire. But when the ward assures him that working at the theater has educational value because its name is the France Theater, Father Mockinpott is relieved that the young man is absorbing real culture in the nation’s capital.

In fact, Hisashi worked as stage manager and sometime scriptwriter at the Furansu-za (France Theater) in Tokyo’s downtown Asakusa district.

When, in 1976, my translation of “The Fortunes of Father Mockinpott” was serialized in the Mainichi Daily News, more than a few Western readers were outraged by the very human, warts- and-all portrait of Father Mockinpott. One even wrote to the editor, declaring: “By the way, I am proud of my long nose!”

Hisashi hated air travel and so made few trips overseas. However, he wrote a travelogue about Bologna in Italy, a city he had been fascinated by for 30 years and visited in 2004; and he went to New York in the mid-’80s for discussions about a possible Broadway production of a play he was planning to write about the great samurai swordsman of the Edo Period (1603-1867), Miyamoto Musashi. But his longest trip outside Japan was in 1976, when, at my invitation, he came to the Australian National University in Canberra, staying for nearly six months.

I will never forget him arriving at the little Canberra airport with his then-wife Yoshiko and their three primary- school-age daughters, Miya, Maya and Aya. They lived in a flat across the street from me, and we met every day. We also traveled together to Adelaide, South Australia, where Hisashi gave a speech in Japanese (which I interpreted), titled “A Japanese Laughs” for Writers Week at the Adelaide Festival of the Arts.

I was living in Australia for most of the ’70s, but stayed at his home just outside Tokyo in Ichikawa, Chiba Prefecture, whenever I visited Japan. Once, in the late ’70s, I lived in his house for more than six months. During that marvelous time, the discussions we had about Japanese history, society and the arts enriched my knowledge of and sensitivity toward this country more than anything else I have ever done or studied.

Hisashi was, deep down, a radical — but a radical with a popular sensibility. This was something that was not well understood by Japanese critics at the time, who regarded him as a writer concentrating on comic interactions and wordplay. Now that theater here has become more socially conscious — and even on occasion political — Hisashi can, without risk of contradiction, be accorded his rightful role as the father of postwar theater in Japan.

“My lifelong theme,” he told the Nihon Keizai Shimbun on Aug. 9, 2006, the anniversary of the dropping of the atom bomb on Nagasaki in 1945, “is the war and what it signifies. Ordinary Japanese blame the (war) criminals, thinking, ‘We were victims.’

“Now, the Japanese language has many wonderful features, but we should bear in mind, when using it, its shortcomings. Japanese people should state their opinions clearly. They must set things straight by taking personal responsibility for the war.”

The war, its misery, pity and unresolved guilt were an artistic obsession for him, but never as a tool of any ideology. He ran big themes through the lives of little people. The Western playwright he most resembles is Bertolt Brecht (1889-1956), but he lacks the German’s tendentiousness. For Brecht, people are elements in the political dramas he portrays. For Inoue, they comprise the essence of a play’s story. By identifying with them and their fate, we learn of the machinations of politics and the unrelenting flow of history over them . . . and us.

What was Hisashi like as a person? He was soft-spoken and exceedingly considerate; a doting father to his three daughters, then later to his son, Sasuke, from his second marriage, to Yuri. He was generous in his praise of his contemporaries, a quality sorely lacking in most Japanese writers. And he never softened his keen outlook on human misery. He fought hard and in public — including in later years from his position as president of the Japan Pen Club — for retaining Article 9 of the Constitution, according to which Japan denounces war as a legitimate course of action for the state.

He was a prolific writer of plays, novels, essays and miscellany. In particular he wrote beautifully and in a scholarly but accessible manner about the Japanese language that he so deeply loved. And he constantly mulled over and recreated the history of this country in plays about famous authors, poets, generals — and its common people caught up in the uncommon circumstances of poverty, affliction and war. In other words, he was a playwright who wore his conscience on his sleeve for the benefit of all others.

The last time I saw him was in early October 2009, for the opening performance of “Suite Slaughter,” his play about the proletarian literature author Takiji Kobayashi.

“You look great,” I said.

“Really?” he chuckled. “I’m falling apart at the seams. Who knows, Roger, maybe I’ll have another 10 years, maybe more.”

A few weeks later he was diagnosed with the lung cancer that killed him six months later.

There is an expression in Japanese about just such a person. It is: “Yonin o motte kaegatai,” which translates into English as, “There will not be another like him.”

Those words were never more fitting than for my dear, dear, kindhearted friend, Hisashi Inoue.