Looking history straight in the face

Hideki Noda makes audiences re-evaluate Japan's wartime past


“I want to live, I do not want to perish gracefully in battle,” declares Yamato (Tatsuya Fujiwara), the young hero of Hideki Noda’s “Oil.”

Unfortunately for him, though, he is recruited as an unwilling “volunteer” kamikaze pilot in the last months of World War II. His name — not coincidentally — is shared with the Imperial Japanese Navy’s largest battleship, sent from Nagasaki in April 1945 with only enough fuel for a one-way suicide mission to Okinawa, but sunk by U.S. aircraft soon after it sailed. Yamato, too — and perhaps most importantly — is a name for Japan itself, and for its people who were first brought together as a nation in the third-century Yamato state.

In “Oil,” a magnificent new work by Noda, Japan’s most outstanding contemporary dramatist rises to the challenge of these themes and more as he tackles the universal — and timely — issue of war. In doing so, Noda does not trumpet antiwar slogans, nor is his stage bathed in misery and littered with dead bodies. Instead, his main concern appears to be getting the rudderless, gutless modern-day people of Yamato to do something they have never done, but which they desperately need to do: namely, come to terms with the causes of Japan’s utter ruin in August 1945.

He aims for a “verification” of the war — an open review of the historical sources in order to initiate meaningful debate about the war.

This is a multilayered undertaking. There’s Yamato’s name, and then there’s the name of the play itself, “Oil.” It is most obviously a reference to the fossil fuel beloved of this capitalist world, but it also invokes the Japanese verb oiru, which means to grow up, to study or to gain wisdom.

Over the sea, the war for oil continues, as does the destruction of ancient wisdom — whether in the form of the monumental sculptures of Bamiyan or the contents of the Baghdad National Museum. It’s as if the play were written just last week. However, as Noda says in a program note, “I first had the idea for this play 18 months ago . . . and since then world circumstances have just been approaching it.”

The story is set in Izumo (present-day Shimane Prefecture), the mythological place of origin of the Yamato people, at a time just after the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We hear Emperor Hirohito’s famous radio broadcast telling his mind-blown subjects that the game was up. This is followed by the appearance of U.S. occupation forces in the shape of Japanese-American Sgt. Mathurka — not MacArthur — played by Satomi Kobayashi, an NCO lawyer (Kentaro Shindo) and Pt. ColaBurger (Shinya Kote), who arrive in Shimane on a “special mission.” Oddly declaring that they can’t speak English — “but there are many Americans who cannot speak English at all” explains Mathurka — they are soon asking the local people to sell Shimane to the United States as the 51st state.

Then along comes mysterious heroine Fuji (Takako Matsu), Yamato’s sister, and things become rather more complicated — not least the timeline of this drama. Fuji, who’s faked some miracles to gain recognition as a medium, declares that she can talk to dead people and even to the gods of Izumo mythology (not to mention the monotheists’ God-with-a-capital-G) — and she’s plotting revenge against the U.S forces. Obsessed with the events of Sept. 11, she plans to send two kamikaze aircraft to New York to repeat the attacks of that day in revenge for her brother’s death in Hiroshima.

Confused yet?

The play progresses with everyone trying to get their own slice of the action: The Yamato folk vie for U.S. passports and the U.S. occupation forces are greedy for the oil Professor Okuni (Hideki Noda) has said lies under Shimane. (The Americans tell the Japanese they are looking for jiyu [freedom] — which, they explain, is translated as “oil” in English.)

Fuji, meanwhile, is intent on exacting her revenge — and somehow we’ve slipped in time yet again. We’re now back before the atomic bomb, though heading toward the story’s apocalyptic conclusion. As followers of Noda’s plays will know, such surreal synchronicities are par for the course.

If this weren’t enough to cope with, there’s the sheer complexity of Noda’s cynical portrayal of the relationship between Japan and the United States. The Americans come across as crass when set against the Japanese, who appear in the guise both of guardians of ancient wisdom and of an eternally warring people (their costumes evoke the dress of central Asians or Afghans).

The sets, too, are loaded with symbolic meaning. For part of the time, a screen in the form of an ancient printed scroll divides the stage, resembling the fabled “Kojiki,” the oldest chronicle of the Yamato people. When the screen moves, we see a full-size Zero fighter, or sometimes a U.S. Army jeep. The oil that keeps welling up from below emerges in the shape of a huge black dragon, recalling the one killed by a young warrior in Izumo myth.

History and myth swirl onstage, with war the ever-present backbeat, as we see that Fuji’s mental condition stems from that colossal human blunder that brought a despairing end to World War II — the genbaku (atomic bomb). As she talks on the phone to her brother, Yamato, who is in central Hiroshima, he tells her he has run away from the kamikaze unit and wants to escape to freedom in the United States. Then, in the middle of their conversation, the line goes dead. In a heartrending monologue Fuji tells us: “The line was cut suddenly without any warning. Actually, at the other end of the line 100,000 people melted in a second.”

That moment is followed by terrible sounds of bombing and then an unnerving five seconds of complete silence. In the silence Yamato’s voice rings on and on in Fuji’s ears, then it fractures into other voices, then finally God seems to speak to Fuji and we realize that she has lost her mind. The whole scene is unforgettable, almost beyond description here, which says all there is to say about the power of theater.

John Lennon sang about a peaceful world in “Imagine”; the Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima embodies the desire to avoid the tragic folly of war; and here, with “Oil,” Noda uses the stage to present the unthinking Japanese masses with a stark warning: If we don’t learn from history, we may have to endure a re-run of previous horrors.

“Oil” runs til May 25 at Theater Cocoon, a 7-minute walk from JR Shibuya Station. Tickets are 5 yen,000-9,000 yen. “Oil” then transfers to Osaka, playing at the Kintetsu Theater May 30- June 15. For more information contact Noda Map by calling (03) 5423-5901 or visit www.nodamap.com

The American dramatist, director and actor Barry Hall, who has been collaborating for the last five years with Oriza Hirata’s Seinendan Theater Company — which last year staged his play “Eclipse,” directed by Motohiro Hase — returns to Japan to direct the world premiere of his new production, “Whither Batavia?” The performance, in Japanese, will take place at the Agora Theater in Komaba Todai-mae. Special events accompanying the production include a postperformance talk and an English text-reading led by Hall.