A Japanese-language version of a hit London play about the Iraq war received a tepid response from audiences when it played here recently.
“Stuff Happens,” written by British playwright David Hare, toured Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka from mid-January to early February ahead of the third anniversary of the Iraq invasion March 20.
The play, based on actual events, was a huge hit at London’s National Theatre in 2004, but the Japanese version ended up a low-profile show, an indication of declining public interest in the war.
“I found the play great . . . but none of my friends know about it, I’m afraid,” said Kayo Takahashi, a 22-year-old university student, said after a Tokyo performance in January.
The play chronicles the diplomatic maneuvers leading up to the war — how U.S. President George W. Bush and his foreign policy advisers decided to invade Iraq and how leaders of other countries reacted to the decision.
The play’s title is taken from U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s response to the looting of Baghdad: “Stuff happens . . . and it’s untidy, and freedom’s untidy, and free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things.”
World leaders that appear as characters in the piece are Bush, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, then U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, then U.S. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and Hans Blix, who was the key U.N. weapons inspector in Iraq.
Playwright Yoji Sakate directed the Japanese stage version for his theater company, Rinkogun. It was performed at theaters with up to 150 seats in the country’s three major cities. Given the small size of the theaters, attendance was fairly high.
“One of the main reactions from the audience was that they found the material difficult to understand,” Sakata said, adding it was not an easy job to attract people to see the play.
“They appear to feel the Iraq war is far from their lives even though Japan still has (Self-Defense Forces) troops in such a dangerous country,” Sakate said. “Another kind of reaction was this — Politics, hmm . . .”
Rinkogun also presented a U.S. play about aircraft accidents in 2002.
Despite its serious theme, “Charlie Victor Romeo” became a hit, with many people, including the then transport minister flocking to see it in Tokyo. They followed with a nationwide tour.
There are no signs the Iraq war play will become a hit, one Rinkogun official said.
“Events with serious themes are unlikely to catch on in the current mood in society,” said Yutaka Murakami, a senior analyst in the media broadcasting sector of Mizuho Securities Co.
“Through corporate mergers and acquisitions, for example, various aspects of society, such as business and family life, have been changing,” Murakami said. “People who feel society is becoming unstable tend to dislike political issues.”
Topics such as the fate of disgraced entrepreneur Takafumi Horie and the pregnancy of Princess Kiko have been making huge headlines in Japan, while Iraq-related issues no longer get much attention on TV shows, or even in the Diet.
Sakate said he wanted audiences to see that Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s presence in the international community in the runup to the invasion was much smaller than it was presented in Japan.
Koizumi supported Bush in the invasion and, despite strong opposition at home, dispatched SDF troops to Iraq to provide humanitarian aid.
Hare’s play suggests Koizumi took the actions on his own, with no foreign leaders asking him to do so, Sakate indicated.
“There is not a single line referring to Mr. Koizumi in the entire play, whose original version lasts for about three hours,” and that was the way Japan was perceived in the world at that time, Sakate said.
Commenting on the performance of his play in Japan, Hare responded to an e-mail, “One of the things the play is about is the impossibility of making accommodation with power.
“Europeans or Japanese or smaller countries hope, like junior courtiers, to ‘influence’ world events. But America does what it wants to, more or less without constraint. That’s the reality.”
Social Democratic Party lawmaker Nobuto Hosaka, who saw a Rinkogun performance, attributed the lukewarm public response partly to the prevailing mood in society that leads people to look for excitement instead of question whether things such as Koizumi’s policy on Iraq make sense.
The 50-year-old Lower House member of the tiny opposition party also warned that fewer and fewer lawmakers are against the war or are questioning it.
Tomohiro Machiyama, a California-based freelance film critic, said it is a big problem that the public doesn’t pay attention to international issues.
“Isn’t Japan one of countries that is keen to become a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council?” the 43-year-old columnist asked.
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