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Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2005

Whitewash fails to cover the pain

Nagatsuka's new play shows history lessons remain unlearned


Special to The Japan Times

In "Akuma no Uta, (Devil's Song)" the playwright Keiishi Nagatsuka, 29, seems to ask what we Japanese have learned from defeat in World War II. Leaning heavily on comedy, farce, satire and sometimes tragedy, Nagatsuka's answer -- as one of a generation only able to know about that human catastrophe from indirect information -- is: very little.

News photo
"Akuma no Uta (Devil's Song)" with (from left) Kotaro Yoshida as Ichiro, Shima Ise as Aiko and Tetsuhiro Ikeda as Aiko's brother, Noriyuki

The issue here is that a generation was denied the essential information required to be a historically conscious Japanese -- knowledge drawn from family, cultural surroundings, politicians but, especially, the education system -- about Japan's militaristic past and the bureaucratic heirs who have run the country since.

The lost generation here is of course primarily that of the play's writer and director (and one of its actors), though it would probably include many older people and certainly those any younger. In this play Nagatsuka is also decrying postwar Japan's aversion to looking back.

This is all seemingly weighty stuff, yet on a TV talk show on Channel 3 on the opening night, this firecracker young drama star took a different view, describing his new work as "a human drama of zombies [living-dead Imperial Japanese Army soldiers] and ordinary married couples."

But both takes on "Akuma no Uta" are valid, because what Nagatsuka delivers here is a brilliant, up-to-date and provocative drama for everyone living in Japan in 2005. It is a drama of breakdowns -- of the soldiers' identity and self-belief and the collapse of intimacy and potential of marriage.

Set in an old house somewhere on a lonely mountainside, this fourth-wall drama unfolds mainly in an open living room from which stairs go up to a mezzanine and behind whose large windows actors move between the house and the ominous forest we see out there.

As the curtain rises on a dark and stormy night, we meet middle-aged Ichiro Yamamoto (Kotaro Yoshida) and his wife Aiko (Shima Ise), outsiders who have moved into the house and are being visited for the first time by a local couple, Makoto Makita (Nagatsuka) and Saya (Hijiri Kojima).

Rather than being the perfect host, though, Ichiro is desperately trying to calm his near-hysterical wife, and neither appears to notice the Makitas' oddly suspicious behavior. This is, we soon learn, because Ichiro has had an affair, Aiko has an imaginary boyfriend and the couple have moved into the wilderness to try to rebuild their relationship. Saya, meanwhile, also appears to abhor her husband, and after that first night she keeps turning up unexpectedly at the house again, seeming to be looking for something.

She, though, isn't the only nocturnal visitor. To Ichiro's consternation -- though his near-crazed wife takes it in her stride -- they also begin to be regularly visited by three young Japanese soldiers dressed in shabby army uniforms and each gruesomely wounded -- one with part of his head and an arm blown off, another whose face is festering and the third who at first appears normal but then reveals a bloody cavity where his guts should be.

Obviously zombies from the past, the soldiers explain that they were killed in a bombing raid on Japan. Aiko matter-of-factly chats with these zombies as if they were regular people and discovers that they have returned to the realm of the living to accomplish their mission and die to the last man fighting for the Emperor.

Through clever dialogue and nonsensical jokes, Nagatsuka clinically lays bare contemporary Japanese ignorance about the war and the huge mental gulf that has widened in the last 60 years -- neither the soldiers, nor the couple care about or even consider one another's mindset.

It is as if, in terms of learning from history, the six decades have been a complete and utter blank -- as is exemplified by the fact that when the revenant soldiers find out from Ichiro that it was Japan that lost the war in the end, their Officer Tachibana (Yuichiro Nakayama) orders Ichiro on pain of death to get them an aircraft so they can fly a suicide bombing mission against the United States as soon as possible.

Meanwhile, Aiko is bonding with the zombies, fantasizing that she too has become a soldier as they sing war songs together. And, to compound matters, it gradually becomes clear that the Makitas also came from the past, and Saya is there on an obsessive quest to find her wartime lover Tachibana who died a shameful non-combatant's death in the forest.

Regrets, frustration, anger and incomprehension rule in this isolated old house as each character heads toward their final breakdown. Though "Akuma no Uta" may read and even be acted to some extent like a slapstick mystery drama with lots of black jokes and stormy sound effects, what Nagatsuka soberingly delivers is a direct and bitingly satirical attack on the Japan of today.

This Japan, he seems to be telling us, is stealthily, zombie-like, trying to revert to its former nationalistic self. Both in his portrayal of such national issues as well as the breakdown of personal relationships, it would be easy but erroneous to label Nagatsuka as a purely political dramatist. Radical he may be, and even shocking to some, but in serving up this fine dose of entertainment, his genius lies in the sharp, cool way he allows the audience to consider their present condition and that of Japan without ramming any agenda of his own down their throats.

This is a work that forcefully demands that the audience learns from the past and seriously considers the next big step for this nation.

Although the male actors from Asagaya Spiders' regular team -- the soldiers played by Nakayama, Takaya Yamauchi and Satoru Date -- both deliver memorable performances, and the Shakespearian actor Yoshida brings gravitas to his role, this time the laurels must go to the guest actresses Ise and Kojima.

Altogether, "Akuma no Uta" is a cutting-edge piece of contemporary Japanese theater, and a painstaking work by this remarkable young dramatist, Keishi Nagatsuka. Having won the Asahi Performing Art Award in 2004 for his production of Martin McDonagh's "Pillowman" and his own "Hataraku Otoko," Nagatsuka may indeed be in line for more awards with this production, too.

"Akuma no Uta" runs till March 2 at the Honda Theatre, a 3-minute walk from Shimokitazawa Station on the Odakyu Line and the Keio Inokashira Line. It then tours to Osaka, Sapporo, Sendai, Nagoya, Fukuoka and Hiroshima till May 23. For more details, call Asagaya Spider at (03) 5465-1656 or visit www.spiders.jp


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