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Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2005

Salaryman nightmare, otaku dreams

Special to The Japan Times

Playwright David Mamet was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1984 for his play "Glengarry Glen Ross." Two years before that, however, an earlier, major work, "Edmond," had fared less well with the critics.

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Shinji Takeda as the "Densha Otoko"

The play had premiered in Mamet's hometown of Chicago, then moved to New York, where it was set. As Mamet, now 57, dryly comments in the program for SIS Company's current production of "Edmond" at the Aoyama Enkeigekijo, it only ran in New York for two months after being wrongly pegged as simply an unsettling comedy, rather than the forward-looking commentary on American society that it was. In fact, such misconceptions by the critics -- and the audience itself -- were probably a natural result of the play's unflinching expose of American confusion about the dismantling of the old racial hierarchy and the emergence of a more integrated society.

As the play begins, we meet a nondescript 37-year-old office worker named Edmond (Norito Yashima), as he is told by a fortuneteller (Mayumi Myosei) that "he is not where he belongs." This acts as a catalyst that releases a deep ennui he has been feeling, and he suddenly snaps, leaving his seemingly uncaring wife (Kyoko Koizumi) and heading off in search of his true place in the world.

Edmond's quest takes him immediately into a poor, ethnic downtown quarter of New York, where his naivete and inflexible, stereotypical attitudes soon land him in trouble as time and time again he is cheated by streetwise types, and his life free-falls like a plummeting roller-coaster. Unable to go with this underclass flow, Edmond first stabs a pimp and then a waitress he meets who has dreams of being an actress -- her irrational behavior when she takes him back to her place is more than he can stand.

Arrested for these killings, Edmond's search for meaning continues in jail, where neither being raped by a cellmate nor harangued by a priest seems to do anything more than add to his confusion about life. Finally, apparently accepting his future in these confines, but still searching inside himself for a better life, the play ends with Edmond going to sleep and dreaming about heaven.

At the Aoyama Enkeigekijo, the simple stage is painted black, with two walkways extending from either side of the auditorium, which the actors used for their many rapid entrances and exits. After the fortuneteller makes her fateful pronouncement, 23 short scenes unfold speedily in the ensuing 95 minutes with only minor set changes. Though Edmond is played throughout by Yashima, seven other actors and actresses together take on 30 roles with rapid costume changes -- sleazy gangster, creepy barman, sexy showgirl and so on -- that act as a fine counterpoint to the minimalist stage.

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Shinji Takeda as the "Densha Otoko"

Directing this very American drama is one of the hottest stars in the present contemporary Japanese theater world, 30-year-old Keishi Nagatsuka. Highly acclaimed for his sensitive observations of people's lives during times of extreme duress, Nagatsuka won several awards last year for his staging of British playwright Martin McDonagh's "Pillowman" at the Parco Theater and his own "Hataraku Otoko (Working Man)" at the Honda in Shimokitazawa. Here, too, he succeeds in portraying the self-inflicted tragedy of "Edmond" as the nightmarish modern morality tale that it is.

However, I'd be lying if I said that I was really satisfied with the play, since, regrettably, it has just been transferred from New York to Tokyo without any changes to make its themes resonate more deeply with the audience here. For example, one of the main issues of the play is the coexistence of people from various racial backgrounds in the proverbial U.S. inner-city melting pot, while another concerns Christian notions of redemption. Clearly, the latter idea has little resonance in Japanese culture, while trying to read racial discord from among a cast of similar-looking Japanese actors is not something that comes easily. If Nagatsuka had changed a few details or scenes for the Japanese audience -- for example if he had added something about Korean Japanese, the homeless or street gangs -- the play would have had more impact and done greater justice to the socially insightful spirit of Mamet's work.

That said, mention must be made of the cast, who played their many roles colorfully and well, especially the actresses Kami Hiraiwa, Myosei and Koizumi, who, in particular, excelled as a femme fatale in several roles.

In stark contrast, up the road in Shinjuku there was a play that superbly depicted the times in which we now live in Japan.

Based on the true love story of a 22-year-old manga otaku that first surfaced in Internet blogs about a year ago and has since attracted much media attention, "Densha Otoko (Train Man)" was first rendered as a novel, then a comic, a TV series and a movie before being given stunning and superb theatrical form here by director Yukihiko Tsutsumi and scriptwriter Uiko Miura, with Shinji Takeda excelling in the title role.

Recently, there has been a sense of stagnation in the Japanese contemporary drama world following a period of lively international collaboration -- the wholesale acceptance of foreign texts has led to adaptations that don't take into consideration the real difficulties in translating them for a Japanese audience. But this "Densha Otoko" is proof indeed that there are still people here with plenty to say -- in marvelously creative ways -- about the society in which we live.

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Norito Yashima as Edmond

Known for his varied multimedia works, Tsutsumi builds a huge screen as a backdrop, with multilevel towers to either side of the stage, where otaku sit in front of PC screens in their four-tatami rooms. As each of these geeks communicates with the others, what they type comes up on the big screen, where their lives are also described as they themselves act out their roles.

The result is a multilayered, multisite experience in which the characters' personalities and background are filled in with retrospective videos projected on the backdrop, as the story line develops from one awkward young man's crush on a woman he meets on a train through his "schooling" by Internet friends as to how to woo and win her -- which he finally, touchingly, does.

That this play had truly and brilliantly captured the zeitgeist was plain when, after the last performance in Tokyo, the entire cast and production team were rewarded with an unprecedented 10-minute-long standing ovation from the audience. Though this "train" has pulled out of Tokyo for the time being, it will surely soon be back after heading west for a short tour.

"Edmond" runs till Sept. 13 at the Aoyama Enkeigekijo, an 8-minute walk from JR Shibuya Station. For more details, call SIS Company at (03) 5423-5906 or visit www.siscompany.com. "Densha Otoko" will be performed in Nagasaki on Sept. 8 and in Kita Kyushu on Sept. 10 and 11. For more details, call Horipro Ticket center at (03) 3490-4949 or visit www.horipro.co.jp/ticket/

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