Staging famous Western works, or those from well-known foreign playwrights, is an established feature of contemporary theater in Japan, with Japanese dramatists often adapting or reworking plays so they resonate more with domestic audiences.
One such accomplished adaptation currently running in Tokyo is “Minatomachi Junjo Othello” (“A Simple Othello in a Port Town”), based, of course, on William Shakespeare’s love-tragedy “Othello: The Moor of Venice.” Reworked for the Japanese audience, the basic plot remains the same but the characterizations of protagonists and many of their lines are new.
Presented by Gekidan☆Shinkansen, a company that has been noted by critics for both its financial and artistic success since the late 1980s, this modernization of “Othello” — which has just played to full houses in Osaka for a week — recasts the play’s eponymous medieval North African general as a prewar yakuza boss in Kobe.
Despite the introduction of gangsters, though, this adaptation doesn’t stoop to sensationalism — at least no more than the original, with its loves and disloyalties surrounding an outsider in a prejudiced society and the ensuing fatalities.
Hidenori Inoue , Gekidan☆Shinkansen’s founder and director, said at a recent press conference that the framework, insights and portrayal of characters’ relationships in a play such as “Othello” are all familiar to theatergoers in Japan. However, Japanese audiences sometimes have difficulty grasping certain aspects of foreign culture, such as history and religion. Hence he said his aim was to produce a less daunting “human tragicomic” version of the play.
To realize his vision, Inoue enlisted Go Aoki — with whom his company worked to great acclaim on 2008’s “Izo” — to write a new version of “Othello” in which Aoki has brilliantly rendered the black outsider Othello (Jun Hashimoto) as a half-Brazilian gang boss in Kobe, and his beloved new wife, Desdemona — whose father is a senator in Shakespeare’s play — as Mona (Satomi Ishihara), the innocent young daughter of a rich doctor. As in the Bard’s story, things start to turn sour after Othello is tricked into believing that Mona is having an affair with his loyal lieutenant Shiomi (Kanata Irei). All this has been planned by Aoki’s version of Iago, Miminashi (whose name means “no ears”), the scheming member of Othello’s gang, humorously played by Tetsushi Tanaka.
This is Shakespeare as never seen before. Yet even with all the drastically different cultural references, not to mention Inoue’s trademark showbiz style using loud (recorded) rock music, “Minatomachi Junjo Othello” remains true to the core of Shakesepeare’s 1605 “Othello: The Moor of Venice.” But it is also a bona fide Japanese work, and Hashimoto, it must be said, is outstanding in the title role for his interpretation of the lonely, oft-derided aggressive outsider whose only weakness is love.
Another recent reworking of a popular play from the West is “Waga Hoshi” (“Our Planet”). Though this play was inspired by three-time Pulitzer Prize-winner Thornton Wilder’s acclaimed “Our Town,” it still won the coveted Kishida Kunio Award for best original new script last year. Written by 28-year-old Yukio Shiba, the play is now touring Japan and has already enjoyed a two-week sell-out run in Tokyo.
Reportedly, the Kishida award committee argued over whether “Our Planet” should be considered as an original work or an adaptation. But the members concluded that even though Shiba says he was inspired by Wilder, and that the title “Our Planet” was borrowed from “Our Town,” it is an original masterpiece in its own right. Indeed, while expressing some universal human truths similar to those in Wilder’s play, Shiba’s work also deals with original concepts, such as the birth and death of celestial bodies, and it may well come to rank as high as “Our Town” as a great contemporary drama.
Wilder’s “Our Town,” written in 1938, is a relentless depiction of the mundanity of ordinary lives in a fictional U.S. town named Grover’s Corner. As an undramatic expose of early 20th-century life, it casts considerable light on changes in society brought about by industrialization.
Directed by Shiba as his new Mamagoto company’s maiden offering, “Our Planet,” as the name suggests, expands the realm of Wilder’s play and brings it into a more contemporary context. The play is performed in an arena space, with the audience in banked rows all the way around the stage. The actors walk around a circle drawn on the stage floor, while rhythmically making statements, asking questions and even rapping. At first, this scene — punctuated by various cast members sitting down and performing inside the circle — looks like a living-room scene in a family home.
Before long, though, the characters magically morph to represent planets of the solar system. The heroine, a little girl named Chi-chan (Niina Hashida) becomes Earth and the life on it. Soon, Chi-chan — who likes to spin around a lot — makes friends with the Moon (Junko Saito), and together they play mamagoto (play housework) and enjoy rotating around each other.
Through such simple interactions, and with Shiba and composer Koshi Miura playing Miura’s original break-beat music live, “Our Planet” has a lot to say about life on both a micro and macro level. This multi-layered, imaginative — and even danceable — gem of a performance is ideally geared for a 21st-century audience, whether they’ve heard of “Our Town” or not.
“Minatomachi Junjo Othello” runs till May 15 at Akasaka Act Theater, a 3-minute walk from Akasaka Station on the Chiyoda Subway Line. For more details, call Sunrise Promotion at (0570) 00-3337 or visit www.sunrisetokyo.com (both Japanese only). “Waga Hoshi” is on tour until May 29. For details, call Mamagoto at (090) 2561-8730 or visit www.wagahoshi.com (both Japanese only).