When U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage reportedly said last week that Article 9 of Japan’s war-renouncing Constitution “is becoming an obstacle to strengthening the Japan-United States alliance,” nobody, let alone the mass media in Japan, seemed to be too shocked.
However, in Tokyo’s trendy Shimokitazawa district, outrage and controversy were very much in the hot summer air in the opening scene of “Lost in the War,” by 42-year-old Yoji Sakate which runs until Aug. 4.
The play is made up of scenes re-created from reportage and is made powerful by the fact that a lot of the stories represented here have not been widely discussed by the media, proving that theater, while it remains uncensored, can be a powerful force in airing political debate.
The first thing the audience in the small Suzunari theater sees is a young man (Takashige Mukai) in street clothing on the bare stage. He proceeds to draw big characters in the air with a spray can.
This is a recreation of the direct action taken last April by a young man who protested the invasion of Iraq by spraying antiwar slogans on a public toilet in Tokyo’s Suginami Ward. The scene goes on to show his arrest, interrogation and detention in a cell for 44 days.
If any in the audience thought this was just an isolated attack on free expression and protest, Tokyo-based Rinkogun theater company, which Sakate founded back in 1983, was quick to disabuse them.
The play, which is arrestingly staged using just a few props with a mixture of dialogue and factual narration, is made up of a series of sketches based on reality. One such scene is set in the now infamous Abu Ghraib prison, with two foreign actors, American Kameron Steele and Ivana Catanese from Argentina (who speak perfect Japanese), playing the jailers who photographed heaps of near-naked, hooded captives; in the scene other prisoners stand on boxes, wired up for electric shock treatment.
As Sakate, Rinkogun’s writer and director, explains in the program, though, his aim is not to be sensational, but to present such episodes while being faithful to the facts, excluding extra drama, in order to get as close as possible to a documentary-style theater. The dialogue is peppered with asides raising points not covered in media reports.
Sakate uses only minimal effects, such as a downward sloping stage, which allows for neat changes of scene as the actors disappear underneath it; the costumes are real uniforms and everyday clothing.
The last third of the play deals with the experience of two Japanese journalists briefly taken hostage in Iraq this April. For this Sakate was able to go far beyond mass-media reports since he and one of the hostages, human rights activist and freelance journalist Nobutaka Watanabe, were corresponding before and after he was taken captive.
Particularly interesting here is the Watanabe-based “eye-witness” account of Japan’s “heroic” SDF forces in Iraq, with Watanabe’s character (played by Takahiro Onishi) interviewing a soldier whose Hinomaru shoulder patch is used as a target.
Through this we discover that the SDF is effectively cowering at its base for fear of taking casualties, and its much-touted role in providing water supplies has, in fact, benefited few apart from the troops themselves.
Sakate overlays this with with a narrative account of what their captivity felt like, the warm relationship they had with their captors and their questioning of Japan’s reason for being in Iraq at all.
Sakate’s docu-drama is a powerful, thought-provoking work, excellently staged and performed, and all the more inspirational for its political bravery in the face of mass media indifference.
Running in conjunction with this play on alternate nights is “Darumasan ga Koronda.” a docu-drama about landmines, also by Sakate. Performed on the same sloping stage as “Lost in the War” and again with minimal props, Sakate similarly structures “Darumasan” as a series of five sketches, though this time he uses a slightly more absurdist style and the sketches interweave with one another from start to finish.
In one superbly satirical scene we are introduced to a serious-minded Japanese worker in a land-mine factory, who is so proud of his skills assembling these small killers that he is dead set against them being banned.
In another strand we meet a young woman with a limp who agitates against land mines while at university, then afterward goes abroad as a mine-clearance volunteer.
Each time we see her after she returns from one of these trips — as she explains to a yakuza character who is trying to purchase a landmind for his boss — she has lost another body part. Then, finally, we see her grimly hilarious return as a “head” on a bionic body, just like the traditional Japanese character of Daruma.
The play’s title refers not only to Daruma, but also to a children’s game in which a child counts to 10 with eyes closed while the others try to sneak up and touch him/her. At the end of the play, all our characters come together on the stage to play this game transposed to a minefield.
The play works perhaps more powerfully than the first, relying on satire and black humor as opposed to the simple re-creation of facts; it is also excellently acted with just the right degree of caricature, “Darumasan” succeeds well not only in terms of entertainment, but also in conveying its serious message about the dangers of land mines themselves, and of public ignorance and indifference to those and other lethal dangers in their midst. It was heartening to see how enthusiastically this politicizing play, like Rinkogun’s other offering at Shimokitazawa, was received by the predominantly youthful audience.
Also included in the program, and offered as follow-up to “Lost in the War,” is the world premiere of a 20-minute play by the Italian-American critic and playwright Mario Fratti. It is a reality-based dramatization of the return of a soldier from the Iraq war, who discovers his comrade was not killed in action as reported by the military. “Blindness” premiered in Tokyo and was due for a run in New York, but the participating theater ultimately shied away from the controversial production. Fratti has established himself as an acclaimed critic and playwright in New York and has won five Tony awards for his musical “Nine.”
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