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Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Stage plays restore your faith in comedy

Hisashi Inoue and Ryo Iwamatsu's showcase works in Tokyo

Special to The Japan Times

"Comedy is an escape, not from the truth but from despair; a narrow escape into faith," wrote the English playwright Christopher Fry in Time magazine in 1950. These days the moment you switch on television in Japan, you are likely to be assailed by gales of laughter as young comedians talk frantically, gesticulate wildly and rush about. There hasn't been such an explosion of comedy on Japanese stages since the 1980s. In what was then called the shogekijo (small theater) boom, the degree of laughter in the audience was a barometer of a play's quality, and young audiences flocked to see live theater.

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Chieko Yamada (Rei Asami) and Shigeru Kunieda (Masaaki Uchino) in "Hakone Gora Hotel" PHOTOS COURTESY OF MORISAKI JIMUSHO AND NEW NATIONAL THEATRE, TOKYO

Since then Japanese contemporary theater -- consisting of both established companies and many new ones -- has become much more diversified, with quiet dialogue drama, translations of contemporary Western drama in Japanese, cross-arts works incorporating other genres such as dance.

Tokyo audiences are currently being treated to some of the best works by two Japanese playwrights who are both reaching out through comedy not in a slapstick style, but more along the lines described by Fry: comedy as a means but not as an end in itself. The result, in both cases, elevates comedy to being essentially a human drama that truly "escapes into faith." "Hakone Gora Hotel" is a new work by 70-year-old Hisashi Inoue, one of the veterans of the Japanese drama world and currently president of Japan PEN International.

The play, which opened at the New National Theatre last Thursday, combines historical fact surrounding the end of World War II in Japan with Inoue's clever, satirical fiction. This is a excellent two-act comedy that looks certain to become a benchmark in Japanese contemporary theater for years to come.

The play is set in the basement staff lounge of the famous hotel, with an onstage staircase leading up to the entrance, with doors on either side opening onto other staff rooms. In the orchestra pit, a small ensemble in army uniforms plays a mixture of music by Tchaikovsky, Richard Rogers and various Japanese composers throughout, with original lyrics by Inoue that, from time to time, give this work a musical dimension.

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Sanae (Kami Hiraiwa) and Notsubo (Cho Songha) in "Ice Cream Man"

As the curtains part, we see senior Foreign Ministry official Kiyoharu Kato (Kazunaga Tsi) arriving one night just before the end of the war in Europe at the Western-style hotel (which was opened in 1937 and closed in 1999). He tells the manager, Reiko Maekawa (Masayo Umezawa), to prepare to welcome guests from the Soviet Embassy in two weeks' time.

In the following scene we see Kato in the lounge with the hotel staff and Chieko Yamada (Rei Asami), a half-Russian Japanese who is there to teach the staff how to deal with the Soviet delegation. Though Kato's purpose is to negotiate with the Russians in order to bring a speedy end to the war before U.S. troops arrive on the mainland, it turns out that some of the more shady types among the staff are (fictional) military spies whose aim is to blow up the hotel and all the Russians and Japanese "defeatists" with it.

Thus, by lacing fact with fiction, the laughs come thick and fast in this potentially portentous tale as the bumbling plotters -- caricatured with thick, round glasses -- do one stupid thing after another while hopelessly trying to keep their plans secret. Meanwhile Yamada meets her long-lost brother and Kozo Tsuboi (Takashi Fujiki), a member of staff who turns out to be a lawmaker who has some cool and realistic comments to make on the war.

As the drama unfolds we see each character striving to find the best way for Japan to move away from blind patriotism and toward warm internationalism. In a classic case of the truth being stranger than fiction, we are treated not only to some excerpts from real Russo-Japanese talks at that time, but also to some of the Japanese military's hare-brained schemes to defend the homeland. These included one plan to collect poisonous vipers from all over the country and release them ahead of the advancing enemy, and another to develop a love drug they could spray on their foes to distract them from fighting. Through this masterful blend of historical reality and imagination, comedy and mystery, Inoue succeeds in holding his audience's attention all the way through this three-hour work.

What he achieves, though, is not mere entertainment. It is an "escape into faith" that speaks stridently of the stupidity of humans who kill humans, as well as invites deep reflection on Japan's militaristic past. Despite a certain onstage tension on the opening night, and clear room for improvement in the singing (both likely due to Inoue only having finished the script a few days before curtain-up), the acting here is a joy to behold, especially that of Yasunori Danta, whose serious looks only add to the hilarity of his role as one of the military agents. Though it has only just been produced, it is to be hoped that this play will tour extensively and reach a wider audience.

'Ice Cream Man'

Born in 1952, Ryo Iwamatsu was exactly the right age to be part of the '80s shogekijo boom. However, even then he was forging his own style. His main concerns were with human contradictions and stupidities that, although they may be humorous, are usually of a shame-faced, masochistic sort that somehow casts the world in a different light the moment we leave the theater.

This is the sort of cynical social drama that is now very much in vogue, but Iwamatsu has been doing it all along. It is, therefore, fitting that the Suzunari Theatre and the Honda Theatre in Shimokitazawa should now pay homage to this master dramatist by staging a small festival of three of his 1990s classics: "Ice cream Man"; "Center gai (Center Street)"; and "Tonari no Otoko (The Man Next Door)."

First staged in 1992 in Shinjuku with 22 young actors, "Ice cream Man" is here reduced to a cast of 20 and set at a driving-school camp, where students stay at a mountain lodge for a week or so and take intensive lessons. Onstage, we see a lobby where the would-be drivers come to read newspapers, make phone calls or just to chat with one another. We gradually get to know them through their conversations, and, initially, it seems to be a friendly, jovial group. There is, for example, a man called Notsubo (Cho Songha) who has failed his test so many times that he has been there for six months. We are also introduced to Mizuno (Issei Takahashi), who is involved in a love triangle at the lodge, and to a woman teacher, Jonouchi (Naoko Sato).

A young school staff member, Sanae (Kami Hiraiwa), works at the front desk in the lobby. One day, Sanae's sister (Hijiri Kojima) turns up out of the blue from Tokyo in a flashy sports car. It appears that her relationship with her her fiance is on the rocks. From that moment onward, things go downhill as small problems and conflicts develop among the students and these people -- who had thought themselves to be typical, friendly and polite Japanese -- begin to confront their own frustrations and arrogance for the first time. Finally, the whole little society goes crazy, resulting in mental breakdowns all around and two corpses. The only one to retain his own sanity is Abe (Koen Kondo), a genuinely easygoing student who is forever eating ice cream.

Written some 13 years ago, this play seems to be an uncannily accurate forecast of the general breakdown of social communication in today's Japan. Wonderfully acted here, this is a great, well-balanced group drama directed by the playwright himself. Anyone who wants to know just how weird the Japanese can be need go no further than Shimokitazawa's Suzunari Theatre.

"Hakone Gora Hotel" runs till June 8 at the New National Theatre, a 2-minute walk from Hatsudai Station on the Keio New Line. For more details call the New National Theatre at (03) 5352-9999 or see www.nntt.jac.go.jp

"Ice cream Man" runs till May 29 at the Suzunari Theatre, a 5-minute walk from Shimokitazawa Station on the Odakyu and Inokashira lines. "Center gai" and "Tonarinon Otoko" continue till June 26.

For more details call the Morisaki office at (03) 5475-3436

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