Monday, August 29, 2011

Theater Adventures

"My pleasant discovery in remodeling the so-called Gassho style farmhouse to a theatrical setup was l) that the traditional Japanese housing is basically made of collage concept, and 2) that the interior space is dim and ill-lit, which satisfy the ideal condition to effectuate dramatic sensation."

"Because the house, originally built for a big family, is quite large and has rather tall ceiling. When the internal wooden and sliding partitions are taken out, the entire floor is on just one level, except the earth floor. This is ideal for creating a theatrical stage but the problem was there are more pillars than we find in western homes. I solved this problem, by setting the centrally located “O-e” (the cutout fireplace that served as the drawing room for guests in local dialect) as the stage which the audience can see from the three directions (upfront and two lateral sides). Then the surrounding floors were lowered down to the ground level with different steps for the audience to sit. Upon completion, the stage looked like a Noh theater with aged beams and pillars shining black. However, it has no bright-and-open-air-ness as in the modern Noh theater. You may say it’s a Noh theater of the submerged or deserted houses."

- Tadashi Suzuki, Founder of the Suzuki Company of Toga (SCOT) Quoted and translated from his book “Producer’s Perspective”(1994)


A unspoken requirement for an expatriate is to meet compatriot celebrities sent overseas on a cultural mission. In 1985, Tadashi Suzuki and his troupe hit the road in the U.S. and their last stop was San Diego. An art benefactor in Rancho Santa Fe invited him and a few key troupe members for a reception one afternoon in her big hacienda residence. The benefactor also invited a few local Japanese expatriates to mingle and stimulate conversation. Luckily I got the invitation to the reception. There was a woman there who was introduced as Kayoko Shiraishi, the main actress performing “Trojan Woman” the following day at the UCSD Mandeville Theater in La Jolla. She didn’t speak much and sat modestly in the corner.

It was the producer Suzuki, who mostly spoke feverishly about his Village Toga project, where he was building an intercultural training complex for future actors and musicians. Toga is a village in Toyama Prefecture facing the Japan Sea, at the foot of Noto Peninsula, but further inland on an elevated mountain range. It is one of the villages known for the traditional Gassho-style farm housing. Gassho, in Buddhism, means a prayer, two hands put together with the palms facing inward. Perhaps you have seen the photos of the UNESCO designated tall straw thatched-roof to have snow quickly skid down to the ground. Those farmhouses sounded like producer Suzuki’s new home. I didn’t understand then why he had to go to such a remote resort away from Tokyo.

Actress Shiraishi’s performance at Mandeville was awesome. During a dialog between a man and a woman, Shiraishi cast a flood of long oratory in Japanese against her Caucasian actor’s English speech. At first I thought she was speaking English. Actually, she spoke in eloquent Japanese, so smooth and natural, yet full of vigor and passion. It was fascinating.

Ten years later, I was back in Tokyo and was suffering from severe reverse culture shock. The summer heat which I had forgotten about was unbearable. I chose Toga Mura as my summer resort and escaped alone from Tokyo. I got theater tickets and Minshuku (communal lodging) arrangement for one week. My travel plan was to visit Toyama one week before Toga, Hida-Takayama and Kamioka areas of Japan Alps, and go down to Nagoya to take bullet train back to Tokyo after a week.

My plans were unfortunately disrupted because, upon my arrival there, I learned that Toyama was the site of the National Athletic Meet and no hotels were available all around Toyama. I had to revise my plan from scratch.

I enjoyed my Toga Mura visit. I saw plays by Americans, Argentinians and Indians. I watched Suzuki’s King Lear, Noh music and percussions, etc. I did not see Kayoko Shiraishi and later found out that she left Suzuki & Company. (She became a superstar. In 2005, Shiraishi won the auspicious Medal of Honor with Purple Ribbon for her life contribution as distinguished performer and story teller).

The inconvenience at Toga Mura was transportation. Minshuku hotel and Theater complex were located far apart, unfortunately not within walking distance. We depended on commuter buses in the morning and in the evening. However, I made a lot of friends during the commute to and from Toga, including many foreign visitors.

A big surprise in Toga Mura was that the construction of the outdoor theatrical stage was very comparable (or more authentic) to Greek theaters of Dionysos and Delphi. The performance at night with torch fires was unearthly impressive. I know producer Suzuki brought his plays to be performed in Athens and Delphi in Greece. He wanted this secluded Toga Mura Outdoor Theater to become an inspirational place for stage goers to experience imperishable human dramas in a timeless and geography-free manner.

Top Photo:
Ancient Greek theater in Delphi – the source of T. Susuzki’s inspiration to build his Toga Mura Outdoor Theater (capacity 800). Thanks to A. Ikeda of Kitakyushu who brought back the Delphi postcard for me from Greece.

Today's (Fri 8/5) Nikkei announced the SCOT's 2011 summer program at Toga Mura, which includes five plays performed from August 19 to 28. They are:

1. Image of Mother in My Eyes, Return of Japan, Newest Edition
2. Hello from the Ends of the World - with fireworks at the outdoor theater -
3. Electra - Greek play by Sophocles
4. Cyrano de Bergerac - with a Taiwanese actress in the main role
5. Extra Issue - Junichiro Tanizaki

Tadashi Suzuki is quoted as saying, "Drama is a history of reminiscences since the days of Greece. I hope our programs this year is worthy of association with great endeavors in the history of dramas."

Monday, August 22, 2011

Requiem for the Dead Japanese in Siberia

During this Obon weekend, I was in Higashiyama Kyoto among worshippers at their family temples and groups of sightseers, while soaking up a distant scent of incense in the air. I felt I shouldn’t miss the last performance of the Russo-Japanese play “When Cherry Blossoms Bloom in Siberia,” performed in Kyoto on August 14, 2011.

The story was originally written in 2007 by Nelly Matkhanova, residing in Minusinsk near Irkutsk by Lake Baykal. I read that the playwright was inspired to write by reading Shizuo Yamashita’s book of ball-point sketch collections called Retained for 1,450 days (1993), and the Russian translation of Kyuzo Kato’s Diary of Siberia (published in l980). Both Yamashita and Kato were Japanese prisoners of war held in Krasnoyarsk, in their respective camps.

There must have been plenty of Japanese plays dealing with Siberian Gulags, but this play is important as the first from a Russian’s perspective. As a child, writer Matkkanova had seen Japanese prisoners toiling on streetcar road construction projects in Taishet and felt pity for them.

The play was first performed in Minusinsk in 2009 without Japanese participation. Then a collaborative effort between Russians and Japanese was proposed as the Sakura Project. Funding and preparations for the project followed, supported by the Japanese MOF, Ministry of Cultural Affairs of the Krasnoyarsk Region, Minusinsk Drama Theater, Japan’s People Theater, Maizuru City (the port city facing the Japan Sea that welcomed returnees from Siberia), the Japanese Association of the bereaved families of prisoners and other organizations.

In 1952, Japan regained its sovereignty through the San Francisco Peace Treaty with the U.S. and its allies. However, Communist countries, the Soviet Union and China, did not join the Treaty as they were in the middle of the Korean War. Mostly neglected from that Peace Treaty were 570,000 Japanese prisoners of war, detained by the Soviet Union. The unofficial number could actually total 600,000 if Japanese civilians, such as 270,000 immigrants tasked with developing Manchuria, were included. My uncle, the youngest of five of my mother's brothers, was one of the immigrants and he went missing right after Aug l5, 1945.

The play opens with the arrival of Japanese prisoners of war at the barb-wired Taishet Camp, about 800 km northwest of Irkutsk, and ends with the “Damoi (homecoming)“ departure, after 1450 days of forced labor. The guard calls roll and crossly examines prisoners’ personal belongings, confiscating some. A rosary is spared. Each of the seven roommates are spotlighted after they go to bed to show what he is thinking. Individual episodes ensue; a skilled mechanic repairs a tricycle and establishes a friendship with the Camp Headmaster’s boy and wife; an artist exchanges poems with a Russian interpreter; student-turned soldier meets a Russian girl and is attracted to her; an eccentric unable to handle paranoia attempts suicide in the snow; a fever stricken man saved by a Russian housewife on his way to the hospital gets into a car wreck and is dropped off in the middle of nowhere when the Russian driver leaves him to report the emergency; a soldier is pinned under a fallen tree while attempting to save the life of a Russian female guard; an apprentice medic helps deliver a baby of a Russian guard’s wife, which completely changes the guard’s attitude towards Japanese. At the conclusion of the story, four soldiers out of seven leaves Taishet. Two die in the camp and one decides to stay to marry a Russian girl.

These episodes are continuously played out alongside the hard labor assignments, treading in the deep snow for outdoor duties. Helped with the solemn, yet rhythmical Japanese music, the stage scenery rapidly changes by the actors’ coordinated dexterity and well designed stage set. One basic stage for multi-scene usage was magnificent, worthy of applause.


l) I wish to refer to Yasuo Kazuki (1911-1974), another Siberian artist born and died in neighboring Yamaguchi Prefecture. I visited the Yasuo Kazuki Art Museum in Nagato when I went to Nishinagato Beach (see summer memories - Riosologgers). He spent about half a year in Syya Camp, in the territory of Khakassia (once Kyrgyz but now under Russia). Syya Camp was reportedly one of the smallest (250 prisoners) yet worst detention camps in Siberia. I'm not sure where Syya is but his recollection is that he got off the train at a station called Shira, south of Achinsk, was then trucked to Syya village in the mountain and walked another 3 km on snowy roads to arrive at the camp.

There artist Kazuki saw Dante’s hell. I was so shocked to see the skulls peering out from the prison and explored why Kazuki's experience was so tragic and desperate. I found out why when I read Takashi Tachibana’s (see Note 2) book based on his fact finding Siberian trip. The average mortality rate at the camps was 10% over a 5 year span. The mortality rate at Camp Syya was 10% over a 3-4 month period. The main work for Syya camp prisoners was to bring down timber for the old steam power generating station which supported the Communal Gold Mines nearby. In addition to inadequate food rationing, scandals among the Russian officers were rampant. When this was brought to light, the camp was closed. Kazuki saw friends dying one after another from hunger. Shown here is Kazuki's artwork "Damoi" on S.S. Esanmaru in 1947.

2) Takashi Tachibana (born 28 May 1940, Nagasaki) is a Japanese independent journalist, known for his articles on Japanese social problems. He called the forced labor camps in Siberia the biggest human tragedy of the 20th Century.

He claims, at one point, Siberia had 10 million prisoners, of which 7 million were Russians, 2.4 million Germans and 600,000 Japanese. The Kremlin sent Russian prisoners of war, who were returned from Germany, to Siberia for the camp's administration, without any experience or motivation.

3) Russians appropriated Japanese plants, disassembled them and transported them to Siberia. They used Japanese prisoners to reassemble and restart the plants.