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Friday, Feb. 27, 2009

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"The leads are weak": Actor Mikio Shimizu (right) plays real-estate salesman Shelly Levene in David Mamet's "Glengarry Glen Ross," here begging his boss, portrayed by Hideki Oshikiri, to give him better customer leads. © KENKI IIDA

Humans, not cogs

Toru Emori translates David Mamet's bleak warning for Japan

Staff writer

Twenty-six years after it premiered at the Cottlesloe Theatre in London, David Mamet's "Glengarry Glen Ross," which caused a sensation in 1983 with its horrific yet realistic depiction of the dog-eat-dog real-estate business in a recession-hit America, could almost be considered a classic. The play went on to reach a wider audience as an Academy Award-winning film in 1992, working from a script also written by Mamet and starring Jack Lemmon, Al Pacino and Alec Baldwin (in a breakout role that did not exist in the stage version).

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The sales racket: Bungakuza's production of "Glengarry Glen Ross" starts on March 2 in Shinjuku.

Our social and cultural context has changed tremendously since the time of the play's setting. The hopeless, aging salesmen characters featured in this Pulitzer Prize-winning play operate mainly from their office, relying on "lead" cards provided by their boss.

Their working style would be completely different if they were portrayed today, with mobile phones allowing — or mandating — them to work from everywhere; instead of being distributed on printed cards, the leads for potential customers would probably come through the Internet.

Yet Mamet's fierce criticism of market fundamentalism, as well as his dramatization of what people do under extreme pressure, is still relevant to today's viewers — especially amid the ongoing global recession — according to actor and director Toru Emori, who is staging the play in Japanese for the Bungakuza theater troupe in March.

For Emori, a high-profile TV personality, the grim social picture depicted in the play looks benign compared with today's state of society, which he said increasingly looks at human beings only as "commodities."

"The play deals with ugly sides of humanity, such as our competitive nature," Emori says in a recent interview at Bungakuza's office in Shinjuku Ward. "But it is also full of human feelings such as passion and camaraderie. Compared with the characters in the play, people today look as if they've lost their feelings."

A prestigious 72-year-old theater company, the Bungakuza has an impressive track record of discovering actors who have gone on to become household names through their roles in film and TV. The upcoming performance marks the third time the company will stage the legendary play, following productions in 1990 and in 1998.

Both of the earlier performances proved successful, leading to the troupe's decision to stage it again. Emori has been involved in all of the productions, as translator and director.

The theater veteran says he likes "Glengarry" for its clever script, which, unlike in many other plays, seems natural and realistic, as well as being effective in making viewers understand the story.

"I felt, when I first read the script, as if the events were happening right there," Emori says. "There were very few lines explaining the plot, and in the beginning it is difficult to understand what the characters are talking about. But then, in Scene 2, small pieces come together. This storytelling style was attractive to me."

Translating a play known for quick exchanges and an abundant use of foul language into Japanese was a big challenge. While working on the translation, Emori recited the lines to himself times after time to make sure they sounded OK in Japanese, he says.

Emori has been acclaimed for his interpretations of western dramatists such as Shakespeare, but he is forthright about the limits of Japanese actors' ability to portray Americans while speaking the Japanese language.

"I'm sure it's quite strange. Japan is probably the only country where so many translated works are staged," he observes. "But Japan's modern and contemporary plays, apart from traditional ones such as kabuki and noh, started with imports. So translated plays have naturally been the mainstream here. Come to think of it, it's strange to call Japanese-looking people 'Shelly,' 'George' or 'John.' But that's how things have been done."

Still, the message of "Glengarry" transcends such limitations, he says, noting that he wants to remind viewers of the importance of remaining human, instead of becoming cogs or commodities in the market machine.

"People are turning into things, and that worries me," says Emori. "To me, that is the root cause of many crimes and people's loss of feelings. The present-day reality reminds me of the film 'Modern Times' by (Charlie) Chaplin."

"Glengarry Glen Ross" will be performed 11 times over 10 days, starting March 2 at Kinokuniya Southern Theatre in Shinjuku. Tickets are ¥5,500 for adults, ¥3,800 for people aged 25 and under, and ¥2,500 for junior-high- and high-school students. For more information, call the Bungakuza at (03) 3351-7265 or visit www.bungakuza.com

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