Friday, 18 May 2007

Japan in film and theatre

I went to the wonderful (and cheap) Price Charles Cinema off Leicester Square to see a matinee of Letters From Iwo Jima, the second part of Clint Eastwood’s films about the fierce WWII battle for that small piece of land. The first film, Flags of Our Fathers, was seen for the American point of view, and ultimately focused on the political machinations that saw our protagonists (who had famously raised the stars and stripes on the island) used as propaganda pawns by the US Government. Both films explore the nature of duty, patriotism and bravery, both also show the hell of war and are beautifully shot.

But it’s the Letters from Iwo Jima that fascinates the most. Here we see the conflict from the Japanese point of view (with subtitles), and at first the grumblings of ordinary soldiers feels like it could just have easily seen said by a US serviceman. But later, as we delve deeper into the culture of the Imperial Army, hearing the gentle Japanese language spat out like bullets, we start to see the major cultural differences between the East and West. The dedication to the imperial regime, the unbelievable dishonour at which defeat brings, leading to suicides unimaginable on the other side of the conflict. But we also see the similarities between the Americans and Japanese, the common humanity that a letter from a worried mother can bring, the emotion of hearing school children sing a song. It really is a brutal evocation of war, but a beautiful portrait of the human spirit.

That a non Japanese director could make such a fluent film in such a different language to his own often surprises me, Clint Eastwood really is a talented man. But watching the film I though of Alexander Sokurov’s exceptional film, The Sun, about the last days of WWII for Emperor Hirohito. As the Americans take power over Tokyo, the living deity has to accept mortal status and utter defeat for his country. It’s a very quiet film, reflecting what it may have been like in the Imperial Palace at the time, spare in words, but with every gesture imbued with meaning.

These two films, exploring almost the same time in Japanese history are both by foreigners, looking into the psyche of Japan. But I don’t think we see enough of real Japanese cinema in this country. We get the occasional anime or manga film, but after that (and maybe a more mainstream horror now and then) nothing much. We get such a large amount of (sometimes indifferent) French films at out art cinemas, perhaps its time to look eastward?

On the theatre front, noh and kabuki theatre is little understood or seen over here. Ninigawa brings us his brilliant and bold productions (what a Titus at Stratford last year, and an extraordinary Coriolanus at The Barbican last month) from time to time. But for most of us Pacific Overtures (done in the noh style) is as close as it gets. However Sadler’s Wells hosted a very interesting Kabuki show last year, with a top company from Japan showing us what Kabuki was really all about. It was a very strange evening, not only was the show so different to what I had expected (due to the diluted forms of Japanese theatre I had previously seen), but the audience was nearly all Japanese making for an electric atmosphere. Looking to the future, the Gate Theatre is producing a noh play called Nakamitsu, in a new version presumably in English (it’s on from 24/5-16/7). I enjoyed The Bee at The Soho Theatre, which was also an English adaptation of a Japanese play (although a modern play, Nakamitsu is a traditional noh piece apparently), but kept a Japanese sensibility (although Kathryn Hunter played a male business man, so I suppose that is in the tradition of one sex playing another). It was pretty brilliant, so high hopes for The Gate….

Talking of women playing men, also some years ago at Sadler’s Wells, there was a superb Japanese Hamlet (with a Japanese theatre company, but directed by Jonathan Kent). The Ophelia for that production was male, it was a traditional all male company, but he had specialised in playing only women throughout his career (another tradition). He one of the most affecting Ophelia’s I have ever seen, and a totally convincing woman to boot. So I think Japanese theatre has so much to offer, I’d like to see this kind of thing being more than just a very occasional gem.

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