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Sunday, March 14, 2010


Patient's tale casts a sublime lightness on some awful scars of war

"Elephant," by Minoru Betsuyaku, is a postwar classic of Japanese drama.

One of the very few Japanese plays written about the aftermath of the U.S. atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, it has been performed many times in this country since its premier nearly 50 years ago.

The New National Theater in Tokyo has just staged a new production, and I will return to that later. But first, more about the brilliant play itself.

The hero of "Elephant" is known only as Patient. It's telling that this man has no name. In fact, none of the characters has a name. Patient is a hibakusha, a radiation victim of the bombing. His sole purpose in life, now that it is coming to an end, is to return to "that town." That town is Hiroshima. But it, too, remains unmentioned by name. The playwright is telling us that the context here may be specific, but the message applies to all locations that have suffered mass destruction at the hands of an enemy.

"I'm practicing walking every day," Patient, who is barely able to leave his hospital bed, tells his nephew. "And, believe me, when I get a bit of meat on these legs, I'm going back to that town. I'm going to get in my wagon just like I used to . . . and, when I come riding around that corner, they're going to scream, 'The bare-chested keloid man's here!' . . . There'll be a sea of people in front of me, and I'll shake hands with all of them. . . . They'll be so goddamn happy to see me!"

Not long after the war ended, Patient took pride in his keloids, the scar tissue formed, in his case, over burn injuries caused by the atomic blast. He rubbed olive oil into them to make them gleam and, standing on his little straw mat, he posed for passersby, who applauded him.

But soon Japanese people became ashamed of these victims, who they came to regard as symbols of defeat at the hands of a loathed enemy who was now a devoted friend and presumably a benevolent master — namely, the United States of America.

Moreover, survivors of the blasts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki found themselves shunned and discriminated against in Japan. If their exposure to radiation became known, for example, their chances of getting married were compromised.

This is where Patient's indomitable spirit comes in. It is seen as an embarrassment by society, represented in "Elephant" by the hospital that he is being kept — or confined — in. There they cajole him, they oppose him, they even tie him up. He must not be allowed to go back to "that town" and publicize his affliction.

Betsuyaku has written an astounding 130 plays, as well as children's books and the wittiest and most profound essays about Japanese society. He is most often compared with Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter, but there is also the definite shadow of Franz Kafka over his work. And yet, if I were asked to characterize his drama in a single word, it would be "lightness" — a very Chekhovian lightness.

How does this lightness jive with the grave theme in "Elephant"? This is a play about the tragic aftermath of war, the sort of ruinous aftermath we've seen in dozens of countries that victors have left behind. And in all these disparate places, ordinary people are left to pick up the pieces of their lives in the ruins and somehow fashion new futures for themselves.

Despite the fact that even the nurse in this play is also a hibakusha, and the threat of violence against both Patient and unnamed bystanders hangs over its stage like a pall, the dialogue is riddled with laughs. Betsuyaku is the Buster Keaton of Japanese theater. Even his pauses are funny.

A scene in which Patient's wife eats a rice ball beside his bed is well known to Japanese theatergoers.

"I've never seen anybody eat a rice ball with less art," he tells her, as she munches her way around the flavored part in the middle. He admonishes her for eating it "ass backwards," adding that "you gotta have a strategy, a plan!"

Betsuyaku's theater is one of poetic realism in which the unsaid becomes real and terrifyingly concrete. Yet virtually every line, even those expressing arch-banality, has a subtext — and that subtext is almost always uplifting with an airy wit.

The term fujori (absurd) is often applied to Betsuyaku's drama. It is high time this ridiculous descriptor was dropped from the critical lexicon. "Theater of the Absurd" was a catchall phrase popularized in the 1960s. It referred to works that sought to negate the naturalistic orthodoxy that had overwhelmed Western stages from the late 19th century. As such, it had a role to play in defining a certain kind of theater in which dreams, surrealistic coincidences and non sequiturs motivated characters' actions and dictated their lines.

But this term doesn't make sense in the Japanese cultural context, where the mainstream grammar of expression, both verbal and visual, defies the logic of Western naturalism.

As for Betsuyaku's theater, the Western playwright he most resembles may be Chekhov, in whose works the everyday encounters of people caught up in mundane — but, to them, absolutely crucial — personal dilemmas are informed by a very special variety of philosophical whimsy. Betsuyaku's theatrical language, like that of Chekhov, is sparse and equivocal. Perhaps this is why the two are often misread by directors, who lean too heavily on the philosophy and miss the whimsy.

This brings me back to the production at the New National.

Director Shigefumi Fukatsu has given us a version of "Elephant" that totally misses its many points. He has chosen a presumed "absurd" style of presentation, with prolonged pauses and artificially stylized movements. The crispness of Betsuyaku's dialogue is lost in this overlong reading of the play. Fukatsu has imposed a heavily configured, showcase mise-en-scene on the play; and, as a result, the rhythms of the dialogue have been destroyed. "Elephant" is a tragi-comedy. Alas, neither of those two elements were there. Ren Osugi's Patient was far too robust, in voice and movement, for this feeble hibakusha on his last legs.

I note here that I have had a long connection with this play, having translated it many years ago. The only professional foreign production of "Elephant" to date has been one at the Mercury Theatre in Auckland, New Zealand, directed by Tony Richardson in 1975. Patient was played by the marvelous New Zealand Maori actor George Henare.

This is a play that should be seen all over the world. To take a new directorial tack on it would, of course, be wonderful. To my mind, it could even be set in China, Germany, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan or Iraq. Who is to say that Fallujah is not "that town" of our era? But it is a shame when any great play is lost in transition to the stage.

Patient's nephew in "Elephant," who ends up in a bed beside him, says, "Uncle . . . we can't do anything now. If we do something it will only be worse for us. We've got to just lie down and sleep quietly no matter how much pain we feel. . . . The only thing we are capable of is being despised by everybody . . . or being persecuted by everybody. We can't let ourselves think, even for a minute, that we might be loved."

If one of a playwright's missions is to speak for the weak and the victimized, and cause us to empathize with and love them, then, in "Elephant," Betsuyaku has accomplished his mission with pathos, wit and a timeless beauty.

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