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Wednesday, June 8, 2005

House of babel that bubbles over

Hisashi Inoue's 'Kokugo Gannen' is a great linguistic farce

Special to The Japan Times

Hot on the heels of Hisashi Inoue's new play "Hakone Gora Hotel," which opened at the New National Theatre in Tokyo, "Kokugo Gannen (The First Year of the Japanese Language)," a vintage classic by the same playwright that premiered on the other side of Shinjuku at the Kinokuniya Hall in 1986, has now opened to packed houses there again.

News photo
Family photo of Nango's family (above) with Seinosuke (Bsaku Sato) holding his songbook in the middle and Seinosuke in a white kimono with his family. PHOTOS COURTESY OF KINOKUNIYA HALL
News photo

What links both works is Inoue's desire to examine Japanese identity: In "Hakone Gora Hotel" it is about coming to terms with World War II; in "Kokugo Gannen" the issue of the sacrifice of regional cultures that went along with the forging of a national language in the interests of unification after the emperor system was restored in 1868.

The hero here is Seinosuke Nango (Bsaku Sato), an Education Ministry official and Japanese language expert. As the play begins, his family and servants are preparing for a party at their home to celebrate the delivery of his new book of Western songs with his own Japanese lyrics for elementary school children.

However, rather than marking the end of his travails, the party is significant for another, much weightier assignment Nango receives; creating a new, homogenized and simplified Japanese language based on the lingua franca in the new capital of Tokyo.

What follows is nothing short of hilarious -- as Nango himself, a Choshu dialect-speaker from present-day Yamaguchi Prefecture in the far west of Honshu -- strives diligently to fulfil his commission in a household where his wife and her father come from Kagoshima in Kyushu, and speak in a different dialect, as do the servants, who are from places as diverse as Osaka, Tokyo, Tohoku and Nagoya.

With some 10 very different dialects under one roof, Nango's earnest efforts to find a linguistic lowest common denominator -- and metaphorically, of course, a new unified national identity -- are the side-splitting stuff at the heart of this farcical tale of nation building.

Indeed, each character speaks in such strong local dialects that many Japanese in the audience have to concentrate hard to catch all the meanings, (when the play was screened on television it was heavily subtitled.)

The laughometer really hits the roof with Nango's dumbed-down innovations for his bastardized bunmeikaika-go (civilization language), which produce a Japanese like none ever heard beyond this play.

Structured as day-to-day sketches in Nango's house, with each given its theme by the actors singing one of the songs from Nango's schoolbook, this play may be three hours long but with nonstop humor it feels half that length.

There is also the compelling character of Nango forever at its heart, not only wrestling with his appointed task, but also with his Japaneseness -- in other words an inability to make up his own mind and reconcile his giri (duty) and his ninjo (human feelings) for his family.

As a result, he fails to please his bosses, while also alienating those closest to him. As we see Nango broken before our eyes, sacked from his job and with his household and personal life in tatters, we are drawn ever deeper into Inoue's allegorical dramatization, which speaks volumes about the headless chicken that, in so many tragicomic ways, still symbolizes today's Japan.

Skillfully directed by Inoue's long-time collaborator Tamiya Kuriyama and well-acted by Inoue's regular team and outstandingly so by Sato, this long-awaited restaging is a real gem to be enjoyed in tandem with "Hakone Gora Hotel" running just a few hundred meters away.

"Kokugo Gannen" runs till June 12 at Kinokuniya Hall, a 5-minute walk from JR Shinjuku Station. For more details, call Komatsu-za at (03) 3862-5941 or visit www.komatsuza.co.jp

Fellini gets a 'Nine'

Meanwhile, for something completely different, Tokyo theatergoers can now also savor a second helping of English director David Leveaux's musical "Nine/The Musical" produced by Theater Project Tokyo (tpt), which was reviewed when it opened here last year.

Based on Federico Fellini's acclaimed "8 1/2" about a successful Italian film director's middle-age crisis, "Nine" written by Arthur Kopit, with music by Maury Yestol was a huge Broadway hit in 1982 for American director Tommy Tune, who won five Tonys for it that year.

Fourteen years later, however, Leveaux breathed yet more new life into the work, and duly won a Tony for this revival, when he took it to Broadway in 2003. Now, after bringing "Nine" to Japan last October with an all-Japanese cast he auditioned himself, he has brought the same production back with virtually the same cast playing to even fuller houses.

If this "Nine" ends by outselling the last, it will likely be due to one key cast change that of Tetsuya Bessho for Kiichi Fukui in the main role of Guido. Bessho's vitality and mellow voice can only be said to enhance this absorbing production and lend it an even greater clarity and focus.

"Nine" runs till June 12 at Art Sphere, a 2-minute walk from Tennozu Isle Station on the Tokyo Monorail, or 8 minutes by taxi from JR Shinagawa Station. For more details, call tpt on (03) 3635-6355 or visit www.tpt.co.jp or www.tennoz.co.jp/sphere

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