THEATER director Keita Asari, noted mainly for staging Western musicals, has chosen to walk the edge of a sword with his new musical about Japan's occupation of Chinese Manchuria in the 1930s. The play, entitled ``Ri Koran,'' follows the tragic tale of a real Japanese woman who grew up as a Chinese, adopted the Chinese name Ri Koran, and became famous singing songs that praised Manchuria. The Japanese government hoped the songs would be effective as propaganda, and would persuade Japanese to emigrate to the newly won territory.
This original musical, set amid a turbulent time in Asia's history, comes two years after the passing of Emperor Hirohito, whose role in World War II remains controversial. Fearing the wrath of right-wing groups, few Japanese dare to call attention to Japan's wartime atrocities.
``The death of the Emperor has broken the taboo, enabling a closer look at what had happened during that era,'' says Mr. Asari, president and director of Tokyo's Shiki Theatrical Company.
Asari is a close associate of leading Japanese politicians, including former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, and serves on various governmental advisory committees. He says that former Prime Minister Noburo Takeshita, presently Japan's political kingpin, missed becoming a kamikaze pilot by being one year too young.
``He survived because by the time his turn came up, there were no more planes left,'' says Asari.
Shiki is a leading theater company in Japan, employing about 450 people, half of them actors. Asari and nine others established the company in 1953, after being inspired by the Western theaters established by French playwrights Jean Giraudoux and Jean Anouilh.
Asari's vision was to develop a new school of theater in Japan. The Shiki produces more than a thousand plays and musicals yearly, including some for children, and such Western musicals as ``Jesus Christ Superstar,'' ``Phantom of the Opera,'' ``Chorus Line,'' and ``West Side Story.'' Its biggest success continues to be ``Cats'' with over 1,800 performances thus far.
In his most recent production, Asari took extreme caution not to give the play an ideological slant, and he avoided any reference to the Emperor. ``I didn't intend to make `Ri Koran' into an antiwar play,'' he states, ``but I wanted to tell the younger generation about the tragedy that Asia went through.'' Young Japanese, he says, do not know much about Japan's role during the war years.
Ri Koran, whose Japanese name is Yoshiko Yamaguchi, now serves as a member of Japan's parliament. Born in Manchuria, she was adopted by a Chinese family and became a big hit through the Manchurian Cinema Association, a company set up by Japan for propaganda purposes. After the war, she called herself Shirley Yamaguchi and appeared in a few Hollywood films and a Broadway musical.
Ri Koran is portrayed as a victim of the Imperial Japanese Army, an attitude that many Japanese share. But the play also points to larger themes of how the arrogance of righteous leaders can lead to violence, and the importance of returning hatred with kindness.
``In every era, there are annoying people, blinded by their ideals and sense of justice, who shove happiness down other people's throats,'' sings the play's narrator, a Chinese woman adopted by a Japanese man who was later killed for serving as a general of the Manchukuo Army.
``To understand what actually happened back then, one needs to know the imperialist ideals prevalent in the world at the time and how the Japanese military and many of its people came to believe in invading the mainland,'' says director Asari.
``Also, there is a need to know about Japan's poor economic situation in which many farmers had to sell their daughters in order to survive, and how some Japanese, such as Ri Koran's father, sincerely believed in creating Manchukuo, a utopian paradise based on the `Harmony of the Five Peoples' [Chinese, Korean, Mongolian, Manchurian, and Japanese],'' he continues.
Being politically naive and believing in the creation of the utopian state of Manchukuo, Ri Koran was accused by the Chinese of being a traitor after the occupation. She escaped a death sentence by revealing her Japanese heritage and by publicly apologizing for her ignorance.
The musical takes a particularly serious tone when film clips are shown of massacred bodies and air battles that involved the Japanese military. Many older Japanese in the audience wept during the documentary-like scenes when kamikaze pilots are shown singing the night before their missions.
Praised by Japanese political commentators but disliked by entertainment reviewers, ``Ri Koran'' was staged in Tokyo from February through April, and will be performed again this fall. Negotiations are underway to perform it in other Asian countries. ``We probably should take it to China to show that Japan has not forgotten about the war,'' says the director.
In 1985, Asari received an award from the Society of Italian House Music Critics for his direction of ``Madame Butterfly'' at La Scala Opera House in Milan.
Shiki will perform a Kabuki version of ``Jesus Christ Superstar'' at the Japan Festival in London this September.