Who’d have expected this? Here, in the midlands of Japan, Shakespeare’s Hamlet is performed. It’s amazing to think that the year Hamlet was penned (1602, more or less) The first Tokugawa Shogun, Ieyasu, was sewing up the borders of the island nation, persecuting Christians and and keeping Samurai wives hostage in the brand new capitol of Tokyo (Edo as it was known then). William Adams (Miura Anjin) was the only Westerner allowed to stay within the confines of the nation. An Englishman by birth, he was shipwrecked in Japan and worked his way up to Samurai without even taking a single Berlitz class. He probably had no idea who Shakespeare was, but you never know. Meanwhile Shakespeare himself may have had some passing knowledge of the barbarian islands to the East. He knew Sir Humphrey Gilbert well, an explorer who’d had his share of run-ins with a variety of natives. In fact Shakespeare wrote “The Tempest” based on the stories of his explorer friend. But whether he knew anything of Japan specifically, I have no idea. I suppose those who saw the play’s first 1602 performance understood the language and meaning better we modern English speakers. The language has suffered much over time, raped by the industrial revolution, colonization, wars, famines and Facebook. Here in Nagoya where Hamlet was performed subtitled in Japanese, it’s not unlikely that the Japanese audience understood the play better than the native English speakers. But watching Hamlet is not about understanding Hamlet. It’s like Kabuki, nobody really understands it, they just go for the refreshments and the social status. So why attend a Shakespearean play in Japan? There are no refreshments, few people to impress, and the subtitles are in Japanese anyway. Nameless Theatre, Nagoya’s English community theater, took on a real conundrum with this one. But hat’s off to them, they did it anyway. It’s not fair to say that it was nothing I’d expect to see staged at the Globe, but considering the group’s myriad limitations (lack of waiters… uh actors, lack of English speakers, lack of interest in Shakespeare, etc.) this performance was well worth the two plus hours it occupied in my life. Director Carl Bradley seemed undaunted by these obstacles, drawing excellent performances from the expat cast. The icing–or perhaps the entire cake–was Anthony Gilmore’s performance as the Danish Prince (that’s Hamlet for those who slept through Freshman English). The truth is, it would be a shame not to stage such an ambitious work when one has the talent available. Bradley must have known this as he planned this show. As crazy as it sounds, Hamlet in Nagoya was no mistake. It was something for us all, in this tiny community of two million souls, to be proud of.
If you haven’t seen it, watch the movie Sayonara with Marlon Brando. It’s like Romeo and Juliet with the Montagues being the U.S. Military and the Capulets are the Takarazuka. Red Buttons’, Brando’s comrade’s, love interest, Katsumi (played by Umeki Miyoshi), is a member of a nationally famous, all-female performing group, based on the real-life Takarazuka. They are like the female version of Kabuki, but instead of males in female roles, we see females in male roles. The sexuality of this country is just all topsy-turvy. Anyway, the real Takarazuka in Japan is wildly popular among its fans. Which is to say that not everybody in Japan cares much about them, but if you do care you care a lot. The more established women of Takarazuka are afforded the treatment of heads of state or pop stars. The only difference is nobody really knows what they look like or who they are… unless they’re fans of… Takarazuka. Takarazuka fans are like Trekkies. They’re vehement and loyal. But they’re also a little embarrassed about their vehemence and loyalty. Being a Takarazuka fan isn’t exactly cool, but like Star Trek conventions, Takarazuka events hold their own sort of quaint, off-ish coolness. OK, all this to say… the other day several Takarazuka actresses were in Nagoya to do some interview or something. Mind you they were not performing, just going to the Chunichi newspaper building for a little one-on-one with some of Nagoya’s ace reporters. The fans found out about this and parked themselves en masse in front of the Chunichi building, just waiting for the women to come out. We happened by and asked one woman… (Takarazuka fans are 98% female and over 40 – so as Ritchie Cunningham would say – if you’re hot to trot), anyway we asked one woman “what are you all waiting for?” She answered “someone is coming out of the building.” That’s right “someone.” She was too embarrassed or too secretive to tell us who! We figured it out, despite her help, and we waited around to see what would happen. Here’s what happened. When at last a Takarazuka actress would emerge, always 1one by one and always with an entourage, the entire crowd would stoop to their knees in a sort of reverent posture reminiscent of when samurai or royalty would pass by the serfs. It was beautiful and comical at the same time. But it was done with such honor and such conviction that I couldn’t help but to respect it.
The stage is set. The cherry blossom trees stand, near barren, on the banks of rivers, lining streets, and filling parks across Japan. Everyone is waiting, anticipating the first blooms. As the winds get warmer, people rush out to buy hibachis and beer packaged in cherry blossom cans. Posters of cherry blossoms line the streets and fill the subways and buses. Amid all this anticipation–all this hype–the forgotten hero emerges. Like a trusted scout or royal food tester, the plum trees brave the frigid winds and sharp edged rain to poke their first pink blossoms into the oncoming spring. Soon the subtle pink flowers cover the plum tree’s bare winter branches. It’s beautiful. Bit in all the Cherry Blossom anticipation only a few passers by notice. Here might be one such conversation: “Oh look the plum trees are in bloom.” “Oh those pink flowers are plum trees?” “I think so so, or apricots, or peaches or something. Anyway, lets go get a beer in a Cherry Blossom can.” “You Buying? I have no cash.” (must be an English teacher.) “Yeah, loser, guess I’m buying again.” “All right let’s go then!” The Plum tree is alone–in its lush pinkness–again. But those plum blossoms are not for nothing. All that bright pink–it’s a beacon for the Sakura. The all clear sign. If the plum trees survive, the temperature is right for Japan’s sacred bloom. Dutifully after a couple short weeks, as the plum blossoms start to wither and die, the Cherry Blossoms open up–filling the air in the wispy cotton candy white. Let the drinking and barbeques begin. But as you sip your sake, lift a a glass for the tireless pink pioneers. The fruit that nobody actually eats. Because it sucks to be a plum blossom.