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Thursday, Dec. 15, 2005

Director Koki Mitani and the gentle indecision of Japanese juries

Special to The Japan Times

When 44-year-old writer/director Koki Mitani was young, he got so excited watching "Twelve Angry Men," a classic American jury-room film directed by Sidney Lumet and starring Henry Fonda, that he wanted someday to make his own original version.

News photo
The cast of director Koki Mitani's "The Gentle Twelve" PHOTOS COURTESY OF PARCO THEATRE

And he followed through on that wish -- in 1990, Mitani's reworking of the original screenplay by Reginald Rose, "The Gentle Twelve," brought him to prominence in the theater world. Now a torchbearer for cutting-edge, mainstream drama, Mitani held the nation's TV audiences in thrall in 2004 with his weekly episodes of "Shinsengumi" on NHK, an adventure series charting the bloody, last days of Japan's feudal system in the mid-1800s that starred a member of the pop idol group SMAP, Shingo Katori.

Before he made his version of the play, Mitani had discovered there actually once was a jury system in Japan, from 1928-43, and that most of the cases that came before the juries resulted in acquittals. Putting the two together -- his U.S. inspiration and the idea of judgment by jury in Japan -- Mitani came up with "The Gentle Twelve," an engrossing depiction of human nature and a brilliant analysis of the workings of the Japanese mind, both individually and in a group situation.

This time around, "The Gentle Twelve" is especially timely as Japan is set to adopt a simplified jury system by 2009, and Mitani excels in the play, as he did with "Shinsengumi," at combining the popular and complex while presenting audiences with a feast of ideas garnished with dramatic twists and turns.

As the curtains open at the Parco Theatre, 12 jurors enter a jury room, a sparse set dominated by a large, round table and 12 chairs. Immediately they start to gossip, in particular about the mammoth at Aichi Expo; they are creating wa (harmony) among themselves, which they do even more intently as they deal with the obviously serious matter of which drinks to order delivered. Once those (at times hilarious) social niceties have been performed, the jurors turn to the case they must judge -- that of a pretty young woman accused of murder. She had given in to her ex-husband's pleas to visit him one night, and during their meeting, he fell, or was pushed, under a truck and died.

Buoyed by their newfound group identity, the jurors waste barely a few moments on their debate before voting unanimously for acquittal. "Such a pretty woman" could not possibly kill anyone, they all agree, since she "did not look like a bad person." But then one of them, a middle-aged, loner office worker (Katsuhisa Namase), quite forcefully declares that actually he has doubts, and calls for them to discuss their verdict more.

Although the others don't appear to heed him at first, slowly but surely they individually start to doubt the defendant's innocence. Finally, they reverse their verdict completely -- just as in "Twelve Angry Men."

If that were the whole play -- with its self-parodying portrayal of the Japanese and their penchant to follow blindly, their woeful lack of debating skills and their tendency to judge merely by appearances -- then few would have gone away disappointed at having seen a polished satirical comedy replete with laughs.

But Mitani is more ingenious than that, and he serves up a second flip-flop, following on comments from a seemingly airheaded juror (Michitaka Tsutsui) who, in the opening scenes, was a model of gentleness and irresolution. By posing the question of whether the accused is "guilty beyond all reasonable doubt" through such unlikely a spokesperson, Mitani extends the play's scope to embrace universal themes with which Japanese citizens themselves will soon have to wrestle, i.e. the gravity and difficulty of one person irrevocably judging another.

Unlike the original "Twelve Angry Men," however, there is no heroic central character like the one Henry Fonda played in the movie, Juror #8/Mr. Davis. That is a plus -- by not having a dominant hero or classic Hollywood build-up to a climax, Mitani frees himself to explore each character and how they change from start to finish. And thanks to an excellent team of actors, the audience remained absorbed and entertained through this hilarious human drama.

* * *

Speaking of teamwork, the Royal Shakespeare Company's "A Midsummer-Night's Dream" currently running at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Space in Ikebukuro is an excellent example. On his third visit to Japan (after bringing the RSC's "Othello" last year and "Macbeth" in 2003), director Gregory Doran and a magnificent cast take Tokyo audiences on an incredible voyage of the imagination that -- in its sheer theatrical magic -- shows why no amount of Hollywood computer graphics will ever be a substitute for the live stage at its finest. For three hours, the entire audience was riveted by fantastic, sparkling sets with a big red moon hanging over them, and marvelously imaginative use of puppets that is reminiscent of both joruri theater (which dates back to the Edo Period) and the stage assistants of kabuki. Altogether, a splendid, truly magical staging.

"The Gentle Twelve" runs till Dec. 30 at the Parco Theatre in Shibuya. It then tours to Osaka, till Jan.29. For more information call (03) 3477-5858 or visit www.parco-city.co.jp/play/

"A Midsummer-Night's Dream" runs till Dec. 17 at Tokyo Metropolitan Art Space in Ikebukuro. For more information, call (03) 3490-4621 or visit www.natsuyumi.jp

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