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Wednesday, March 24, 2004

Japan sells its soul, again and again


Special to The Japan Times

Thirteen years ago, when Hideki Noda's Yumeno Yuminsha theater company was all the rage, the acclaim that greeted his then-new play "Tomei Ningen no Yuge (The Hot Air of an Invisible Man)" caused him nothing but artistic distress.

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The stars and stripes is a not-so-subtle emblem of postwar Japan-U.S. relations in Hideki Noda's revivial of his 1991 play "Tomei Ningen no Yuge (The Hot Air of an Invisible Men)." PHOTOS COURTESY OF THE NATIONAL THEATER, TOKYO

As Noda, 48, explains in the program for his current restaging of the play at the New National Theater in Tokyo, the uncritical acclaim heaped on "Tomei Ningen" caused him to question what he was doing as a director. Soon after, he broke up his 17-year-old company at the peak of its popularity, and took a yearlong career break in London.

Back then, he says, he felt the gap between his intention to challenge and disturb his audiences, and their willingness to take everything at face value, was too wide to bridge. And as he said in a recent interview, the willingness of many Japanese people to be led was, for example, exactly what made Aum Shinrikyo possible.

So what will audiences make of "Tomei Ningen" this time round?

The play starts on the day of the outbreak of the Pacific War in 1941, as we watch a group of military policemen discuss a secret order issued by Emperor Showa to select and place a representative into a time machine and propel him forward 100 years to explain to future generations his country's motives for waging war. Through sheer bungling, the hero -- crooked marriage-broker Akira (Sadao Abe) -- is chosen and put into the time machine.

However, a malfunction delivers Akira to one of rural Tottori's famed sand dunes on the same day in 1941. Mysteriously, he has become invisible. Undaunted, Akira sets out and soon encounters blind and deaf Heren Kera (Rie Miyazawa) and her mother Saribaba (Hideki Noda), who run a ramshackle souvenir shop. Though ordinary people cannot see Akira, Kera can, and soon she's fallen blindly in love with him.

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Then Kera acquires a pot of water from a magical onsen in the world of the dead, water with the power to restore her sight and make Akira visible -- but only enough to do one or the other. Kera faces a terrible choice, running the risk that a restored Akira will abandon her. In the end, the innocent girl's love and trust are the stuff of tragedy.

Thirteen years ago, though, the play had a happy ending. Back then, with Yasunori Danta and Aya Enjoji outstanding as Akira and Kera, respectively, the play was received as a kind of "Romeo and Juliet" -- despite Noda's quite different intentions. At the time, Noda's allegory failed to present clearly the issues at stake: Who started the war? Why so did many die for a then-invisible god-emperor? And why do Japanese people still have such an unclear understanding of all this?

Perhaps this was because, 13 years ago, Noda was the young hero of contemporary theater, on a mission to restore real drama to a medium that had become little more than a vehicle for heavy, leftwing polemic. As such, he served up a comfortable, if quirky, romance, toning down the weighty issues to deliver a play in tune with the relaxed hedonism of the end-of-the-bubble times.

Now we have a "Tomei Ningen" largely shorn of its distracting love story. Clearly, Noda aims to confront his audience with their ongoing failure to look clearly at their country's militaristic past.

To this end, the director makes great play of the Hinomaru, displaying it so often and so prominently that its impact becomes like that of a swastika.

On one occasion, we see behind a burned Hinomaru the Stars and Stripes, hiding the gateway to a tunnel leading to the world of the dead. Like it or not, the message of America's huge and not entirely benign postwar influence on Japan is clear. Meanwhile, the leader of the military police, Dr. Hanaoka (Toru Tezuka), is portrayed as a fanatical nationalist, while Akira, played by Abe, is just a lonely young man going with the flow.

With newspaper-print costumes by contemporary artist Katsuhiko Hibino and Yukio Horio's set made entirely of corrugated paper, wonderfully representing the vastness of Tottori's sandscapes on this theater's deep stage, the overall result is a superbly crafted theatrical work.

However, whether this rehash is as clear and incisive a statement as Noda would wish, as he largely achieved with last year's "Oil," is unfortunately a question that lingers after the final curtain -- the very last Hinomaru -- falls.

"Tomei Ningen no Yuge" runs till April 13 at the New National Theater, a 2-minute walk from Hatsudai Station on the Keio New Line. Tickets 3 yen,150-7,350 yen. For more details, call the box office at (03) 5352-9999 or visit www.nntt.jac.go.jp

Though Tokyo theatergoers will now have to go to Kyushu to see it, I would like to make mention of "Faust -- Walpurgis' Music Play," which for the last three weeks has been offering up three hours of great entertainment at Setagaya Public Theatre.

A musical based on Goethe's masterpiece "Faust," this production sings. It's a memorable fusion of talents and different genres.

Not least among its highlights is the simple yet imaginative set created by director Akira Shirai. Capable of arrangement in many different ways, the side walls and ceiling move sideways, back and forward, and up and down. Sometimes the set opens up entirely to reveal steps leading to the darkness inhabited by Mephistopheles (Kazutaka Ishii) to which Faust (Michitaka Tsutsui) is drawn by his human weaknesses.

Then there's the lighting: Black-and-white projections of lightning, spiraling vortexes and glowering clouds powerfully emphasize the work's many mood swings and twists of fate. Completing the effect are the original songs and music by Shirai's long-term collaborator, Toshihiro Nakanishi. These are excellently performed both by the actors and the classical chorus -- and Nakanishi himself on violin.

With Goethe's massive work superbly pared down by Shirai, and its elegant fusion of the classical and high-tech, this is a theatrical delight topped off by superb performances by musical theater star Ishii and -- a wonderful surprise, this -- the lively young TV tarento Tomoe Shinohara as Faust's love, Margaretha.

"Faust" runs March 27-31 at the Kitakyushu Performing Arts Center. For details, call (093) 562-2655 or see www.kitakyushu-performingartscenter.or.jp



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