A rare reconciliation between a former British prisoner of war and a former Japanese military interpreter during World War II will be reproduced this month in a play by an American professor.
Sears Eldredge, a professor of dramatic arts and dance at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., is producing “Return to Kanburi” based on autobiographies written by the two men — “The Railway Man” by Eric Lomax and “Crosses and Tigers” by Takashi Nagase.
The drama, partly taking a form very similar to a traditional noh play, will be staged at the college starting April 30.
“I think the theme of reconciliation is one of the most important themes to deal with in our world today. And it addresses and involves both personal and social issues,” Eldredge wrote in an e-mail message from the United States.
In 1942, Lomax, then a 22-year-old captain in the British Army, was captured by the Imperial Japanese Army at the surrender of Singapore. The next year, he was sent to a prison camp in Kanchanaburi, described as Kanburi in the play, in Thailand to help build the Thailand-Burma railway, later made famous in the 1957 movie “The Bridge on the River Kwai.”
More than 16,000 POWs and an estimated 80,000 Asian laborers are believed to have died in the construction of the 415-km “Death Railway” designed to provide an overland supply route for the Japanese military in Burma, now Myanmar.
In the prison camp, Nagase, then a military police interpreter, witnessed the interrogation and brutal torture of a young British POW accused of keeping maps of the railroad and clandestine radios.
In 1989, when Lomax came across an article in The Japan Times about Nagase describing the grim scene at the camp, the former university lecturer identified himself as the POW in Nagase’s story. The two men began corresponding in 1991, and in March 1993 held a 50-year reunion on the bank of the River Kwai in Thailand.
To dramatize the story, Eldredge is using a combined theatrical form of noh and a nontraditional Western style.
Eldredge’s three-part production begins with the men’s first encounter, focusing on Nagase, while Part II shows their second meeting, telling more about Lomax. As an interlude, a variety show, held by POWs when the construction of the railway was completed in 1943, is reproduced with songs, dances and comedy routines.
Eldredge said that the men’s story reminded him of “Atsumori,” a noh play by Zeami (1363-1443), the founding father of noh theater.
Based on a story from “The Tale of Heike” in the 13th century, “Atsumori” depicts two men — a warrior in the 12th century who kills young Atsumori and later devotes himself to praying for the victim, and Atsumori, who becomes a ghost to avenge his death but forgives his attacker in the end.
“The setting for Parts I and II of my play is a modified noh stage with the audience seated on two sides,” Eldredge said.
As in noh theaters, quotations from other sources — including noh plays, poems from the war, Christian hymns and Buddhist sutras — will be used in the play. A mixed chorus, instead of a male chorus as in a noh theater, will chant and sing from the stage side.
In the interlude, the play moves to a Western stage.
“Because the subject matter of my play concerns both a Japanese person and an English person, I felt that the form and style of the play should try and reflect their cultural context,” he said.
Although Lomax, 80, may have difficulty visiting the U.S. because of recent surgery, Nagase, 81, plans to see the show and hold discussions with students and local media.
“I really want to discuss the responsibility of a military interpreter,” said Nagase, who runs an English language school in Kurashiki, Okayama Prefecture. “Although I never hit any POWs, there were some interpreters who tortured POWs together with military officers during the war and were punished as war criminals.”
Since the end of the war, Nagase has visited the area near Kanchanaburi more than 100 times to pray for the souls of the men who died.
“Lomax once told me that he forgave me for my role in the military and that we were more than friends. But I still have a gloomy feeling and I want to clear it before I die,” he said.
Eldredge said the story of the two men was, in a wider context, about “a meeting of two groups of people from vastly different cultures who had little knowledge or respect for each other’s beliefs and practices.”
“The tragedies that can occur when this ignorance and prejudice are maintained are with us daily in our news media,” he said.