LONDON – A new play based on the abduction of Japanese citizens to North Korea has been captivating and educating audiences at the National Theatre in London.
“The Great Wave,” which tells the fictional story of one family’s fight to find out what happened to their missing daughter, has received rave reviews in newspapers and sheds light on a story little-known in Britain.
“I wanted to tell the story of a family caught up in a political situation,” says playwright Francis Turnly, who is half-Japanese and half-Northern Irish. “I think it’s the first play about the abductions in English.”
The play, based on true accounts of alleged North Korean abductions of Japanese citizens, is set in 1979 when 17-year-old Hanako Tanaka goes missing from a beach on a stormy night. Her mother, Etsuko, and sister, Reiko, live in hope that she will one day return.
However, Hanako has been abducted to North Korea, where she teaches would-be agents Japanese culture and language.
While the play portrays the brutal side of the regime, it also shows the bonds of friendship and humanity that develop between Hanako and North Korean citizens. Later, she marries a North Korean and has a daughter, Hana.
After years of fighting for the truth from the Japanese government, officials admit the abductions took place and in very poignant scenes, Etsuko and Reiko send a video message to Hanako in the hope she will be returned.
Hanako is last seen watching the recording and says she wants to return. But she is not among the abductees who return to Japan, and her family is told she died in a landslide.
The play has a bittersweet ending when Hanako’s daughter, Hana, emerges from an aircraft and ends up living with the family in Japan.
“It’s been on my mind to write about the abductions for quite a while because my mother is Japanese and she told me about it some years ago, but getting a play on this size was quite difficult to do,” says the 43-year-old Turnly.
He was able to write the play after winning a bursary in 2015 and becoming writer-in-residence at London’s Tricycle Theatre.
“I drew from several of the abductees’ and relatives’ accounts and from articles, but I didn’t want to base the play on one particular individual’s story,” he says. “I wanted my own characters. Because it is such a sensitive matter in Japan, I didn’t want to be seen wading in and taking people’s private stories.
“I also didn’t want to show the North Koreans as the cliched villains … the more we stay with the North Koreans in the play, the more we realize they are human beings, just like Hanako.”
Turnly is pleased the compelling story of the abductions is reaching a wider audience.
“I think the play will raise awareness about the abductions in the U.K.,” he says. “Speaking to audience members, they said they were really affected and never knew that this took place. They said they would have found it far-fetched if it hadn’t been based on true events.”
Asked whether the play might be staged in Japan, he adds, “Because it’s such a sensitive matter, we have to be quite diplomatic in our approach. But it’s out of my hands, I think.”
Turnly decided to name the play after Hokusai’s famous woodblock print as the title reflects the emotional roller coaster the characters endure throughout the performance.
“The Great Wave” is part of Turnly’s “Japanese Schoolgirls” trilogy, which also includes a play about the cosplay industry titled “Harajuku Girls” and “Neko,” a supernatural story about a mixed-race girl who turns into a cat.
Critics have praised the performance, which is directed by Indhu Rubasingham and co-produced by the National Theatre and Tricycle Theatre.
“I found the story captivating and was hooked,” said audience member Rebecca Tebbett. “We didn’t know if this was a true story. We haven’t heard about the abductions before. I’m going to go home now and research this issue.”
Her friend, Eduard Buhac, added: “I didn’t expect it to be such an odyssey. The actors really pulled it off. It’s great that there are plays like this, and with an all-Asian cast. It was very powerful. The stage design and music were all very immersive and captivating.”
“The Great Wave” runs until April 14 at the National Theatre in London. For more details, visit www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/the-great-wave.