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Wednesday, April 24, 2002

Mixed messages follow love at first sight

Special to The Japan Times

Love is complex enough at the best of times, but when it crosses cultural borders, things can get really confusing. Opening April 24 at the Shimokitazawa Geki Shogekijo is "John-kun and Yoko-chan," a play co-written by American Michael Naishtut and Japanese Yoko Narahashi that takes a seriocomic look at the trials of cultural misunderstanding and the triumph of true love.

News photo
From left: Tadashi Watanabe, Yoko Kamon and Michael Naishtut in "John-kun and Yoko-chan"

The play is set in Tokyo, where John has come to learn sushi-making so he can set up a kaiten-zushi shop in New York. Yoko is a young, modern-minded Tokyo girl who works as a freeta but dreams of becoming a kindergarten teacher.

They meet in a nightclub, and it is love at first sight. Subsequent scenes trace the progression of their relationship, charting the growth of their commitment to each other against the various problems that arise from their different cultural orientations. John is gregarious, childlike and openly affectionate; Yoko is reserved, serious, and physically and emotionally tentative.

The couple find themselves using their cultural differences as an excuse to mask their underlying emotional conflict. Under pressure, each withdraws further into his or her familiar cultural norms: John becomes willfully insistent on his individuality and values, while Yoko retreats from confrontation.

An emotional impasse results, and the couple face the decision to end their relationship. In a moving final scene, however, the pair are reconciled: John has learned to accept different values and Yoko has learned to be more assertive and to stand up for what she wants.

Making her stage debut as Yoko-chan is film actress Yoko Kamon, 22, who brings sensitivity and humor to the role. Kamon gracefully makes the transition from screen to stage, bringing with her an impressive list of film and television credits that includes two upcoming releases, "Dog Star" (out April 27) and the yakuza thriller "Gokutsuma Ninkyo-do."

Kamon was selected from more than 300 actresses who auditioned for the part. "Yoko has lit up the entire production," says director Narahashi. "She related to Michael with wonderful ease and spontaneity. She's a very good listener, which is essential in good acting."

Tadashi Watanabe plays John's friend Tsutomu, the catalyst for John and Yoko's first meeting. The two friends are drinking in a nightclub, where Yoko catches Tsutomu's eye. In a performance full of comic energy, Watanabe bounces between the two, drunk and brooding one moment then angry and animated the next, until John has to go over to the attractive girl and apologize for his friend's behaviour. The versatile Watanabe takes the drama's other supporting roles as well.

John-kun himself is played by Naishtut, who developed the drama after conducting extensive interviews with racially mixed couples living in Japan.

"I talked to seven couples and asked them about their experiences -- what were their preconceived stereotypes regarding their spouses, and did those ideas change after they were married," he said.

After a first draft was completed, director Yoko Narahashi translated the play into Japanese, adding additional dialogue and changing the story. The story evolved further during the rehearsal process to reach its final, staged form.

"The script now has more universal elements," explains Narahashi. "We had a lot of discussion about what it means to love someone. This play has strong messages, not just for international couples but also for couples who are experiencing trouble in their relationships or those thinking about getting married."

The play takes a creative approach to presenting its complex subject matter. Naishtut came up with one striking element of the production -- the use of taiko drumming to serve as a symbolic counterpoint to the plot. Naishtut choreographed sections of taiko performance to reflect the level of compatibility or conflict underlying John and Yoko's relationship.

The long developmental journey that "John-kun and Yoko-chan" has taken to the stage is appropriate for a study of love and commitment: Every relationship is a work-in-progress.

"I want international couples to come and see this play," said Naishtut. "I'd like to hear their reactions and see how our story compares to their experiences.

"John-kun and Yoko-chan" runs April 24-28 at Shimokitazawa Geki Shogekijo, near Shimokitazawa Station on the Odakyu and Keio Inokashara lines. Performances (in Japanese only) April 24-26 at 7 p.m.; April 27 at 2 and 6 p.m. and April 28 at 1 and 5 p.m. For ticket information, call (03) 3706-1750.

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