When Keito Okamoto was offered the title role in French dramatist Florian Zeller’s latest work, “The Son,” he felt the play was written about him.
“It was completely astonishing,” he says. And what makes taking on the role more special is that he will be making his stage debut opposite his actual father, Kenichi.
“The Son,” which is set to open Aug. 30 at the Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre in Toshima Ward, centers on a fraught father-son relationship. An intense dissection of family dynamics, the play is mainly set in the apartment of the father, Pierre, whose deeply troubled teenage son, Nicolas, has been caught skipping school. Withdrawn and angry, Nicolas’ behavior baffles Pierre and his ex-wife, Anne (Mayumi Wakamura), who try to help their child while balancing their own personal lives. Despite their best efforts and those of Pierre’s girlfriend, Sofia (Kayo Ise), who has just given birth, nothing seems to draw Nicolas out of his gloomy world as he darkly repeats: “I don’t understand what’s happening to me.”
“The Son” is the final installment of Zeller’s family-themed trilogy, which began with 2010’s “The Mother,” whose middle-aged title character is beset with feelings that her life has no meaning, followed by “The Father” in 2012. Centering on an old man who begins to suspect his daughter is trying to steal his apartment as he grapples with dementia, “The Father” garnered numerous awards in France, Britain and the United States, in addition to a best actor prize from Japan’s prestigious Yomiuri Theater Awards for Isao Hashizume when it was staged by French director Ladislas Chollat at the Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre in 2019.
Chollat, one of Zeller’s closest collaborators, has now returned to Japan to present the last part of the trilogy. Rather than being concerned about a real father and son pair playing the lead roles in this edgy drama, Chollat says he was “so pleased” that the Okamotos accepted this offer — “despite it being quite risky casting due to their relationship.”
Kenichi, 52, is the former vocalist and guitarist for the Johnny & Associates pop group Otokogumi. After the group split in 1993, he immersed himself in theater as an actor and director, winning awards, such as a Yomiuri Theater Award for best actor, along the way. Keito, 28, has followed a similar path, spending most of the past decade in the Johnny’s boy band Hey! Say! Jump. In 2018, Keito decided to take a break for two years to study at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York, before leaving the group in April to dedicate himself to theater.
“When I turned 25, I asked myself what my special attribute was in this competitive entertainment world,” Keito says. “As I can speak English fluently, I wanted to use that talent more. … Then, I remembered how when I was younger, I’d dreamed of launching into Hollywood, performing Shakespeare and acting at the Globe Theater. I also thought about how, when he was 19, my father worked with the late theater director Yukio Ninagawa in Juro Kara’s ‘Taki no Shiraito’ (‘The Water Magician’) — and played the main character even though it was his first theater role.
“So then I thought about how to make my father proud by achieving things he wasn’t able to — and I sent application forms to drama schools in the United States.”
In taking that bold step, Keito was actually building on a foundation laid by his father, who sent him off at the age of 9 to study in England for five years.
“I didn’t understand why I should live in England by myself, but I suppose my father wanted me to be an international person as he was not able to speak English,” Keito says.
And although he now appreciates his father’s decision to send him abroad and understands that he did what he thought was best for his son, the move was a tough adjustment — Keito’s first non-Japanese words were “I am hungry” in Russian, the language of his host family in the coastal resort town of Bournemouth.
However, Keito soon mastered English and began to enjoy his time in England. “Once, my school was in the news and the BBC came to report on it, and I was on TV giving my opinion,” he recalls with a laugh.
When asked about acting in Zeller’s intense family drama with his own father, Keito says his admiration for his father, as well as his parents’ divorce, is why he felt a close connection to Nicolas when he first read the play in English.
“My personal situation is similar to that of Nicolas, whose parents are divorced and his father remarried later. So when Nicolas tells Sofia about his darling parents, it pierced my heart,” he says.
“Nicolas tells her, ‘You know, when (my father) left, my mother took it so badly. She really suffered. And she never stopped saying awful things about him … whereas I worshipped him. I mean, it was as if I’d been chopped in half and from then on I didn’t know what to think anymore.’”
Keito says that in his case, he had no one to talk to about his parents’ problems, “as it was such a personal matter. So I thought Nicolas captured my feelings and I could deeply connect with him.”
Although he will tap into his personal experience for the role of Nicolas, Keito insists that when he is on stage, he will face his father as Nicolas’s father, not his own.
“I’m sure I might feel a bit conflicted when I say some of my harsh lines to my father. That will be the same for him, I suppose,” he says. “But I will act the role using my experience and innermost feelings to make my performance as real as possible and move the audiences.
“My father and I share a really good relationship in real life, so this casting isn’t a risk. Actually, it will probably strengthen our bond.”
“The Son” runs Aug. 30 through Sept. 12 at the Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre in Nishi-Ikebukuro, Toshima Ward. For details, visit www.geigeki.jp.
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