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Thursday, Dec. 7, 2006

'Old bunch' learn new tricks to bridge the generations

Special to The Japan Times

A way from the bustle of the Waseda University students just around the corner, a quite different demographic gathered in a rehearsal studio there to prepare for their world premiere in Tokyo's theater youth culture hub of Shimokitazawa.

News photo
Eight theater professionals with an average age of 79 are staging an antiwar play titled "The Old Bunch." NOBUYOSHI ARAKI PHOTO

Answering a call from 59-year-old theater producer and director Sho Ryuzanji, eight veterans of the Japanese stage world -- average age 79 -- spent two months in that cozy rehearsal studio together with five young actors, sharpening what they were determined would be a cool but classy stage production at the Suzunari Theater. The veterans are all busy drama professionals -- directors, actors, a theater owner, a musician and a noh actor.

Ichiro Inui -- at 90, the oldest member of the ad hoc Paradise Ichiza (Paradise Company) and, as a director at the prominent Bungakuza (Literary) theater company, Japan's oldest working director -- told The Japan Times about his aspirations for the project.

"Actually, since I was about 80, I have wanted to do something different as a second career in theater, along with my dramatist friends -- something different as an extension," Inui said. "Maybe when they retire, some office workers feel the same.

"Then, in spring this year, it was a great surprise for me when Ryuzanji asked me to act. Although I was sometimes on the stage in minor roles to fill a vacancy a long, long time ago, I am very excited about this challenge to be a serious actor.

"Nowadays, many drama writers also direct plays and act in them as well, but in my generation, in prewar times and wartime, the job roles were divided. Of course, I have a certain knowledge about acting method through teaching young actors at my theater company, but I did not expect to be a main actor on the stage at this point in time.

"Also, I expected Ryuzanji would select a quiet, reading type of play, but now I understand that he wants our special old-people's experience to show more forcefully, and I am looking forward to seeing how he will elicit something new from us. I just worry, though, if I can remember all my lines, actually," he laughs.

Paradise Ichiza will stage "The Old Bunch," a new satirical comedy by 67-year-old playwright and director Kiyokazu Yamamoto, based on Akira Kurosawa's film "The Seven Samurai." The play is set on a winter's day when the seven main characters, all veterans of World War II, stage a bank robbery to lash out at power-mad young bankers who drove an old comrade to take his life after being swept up by the new capitalism.

Inui said he hoped the production showed older people in the audiences how enjoyable it is to create a new play in collaboration with younger dramatists such as Ryuzanji. To younger and foreign audience members, however, Inui was keenest "to send a living message from our war-experienced generation -- a message to never in the future forget about Japan's war experience.

"When I look at the situation and see the attitude of Japan toward other Asian countries, I sometimes feel anxious that the future in Japan will go back to the prewar time 70 years ago. So this play is rich with warnings, even though it's styled as a comedy."

Soon after the interview, the cheerful postwar pop song "Aoi Sanmyaku (Blue Mountains)" started playing in the rehearsal studio; the cue to start the working day. The studio quickly came alive as each cast member's face changed to that of a professional actor. Everybody, including technical staff, from young to old, spiritedly warmed up together by singing the song. Ryuzanji ordered me to join in, otherwise I could not do my report, he said.

From there on -- with Inui still practicing his lines over and over -- Ryuzanji moved the rehearsal forward minutely and steadily through several scenes, until it reached a climax as the team of aging robbers revealed the real reason for their crime.

One of the war veterans wheeled around on a younger character, boiling with rage: "You criticize me for talking about the war, and dismiss it as mere history. You should never forget that Japan sparked a war."

"The Old Bunch" runs till Dec. 13 at Suzunari Theater, a 5-minute walk from Shimokitazawa Station on the Odakyu and Keio-Inokashira lines. For more details, call The Ryuzanji Company on (03) 5272-1785, or visit www.ryuzanji.com

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