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The Face of Jizo

Hisashi Inoue, translated by Roger Pulvers
Ichiza Theatre
Arcola Theatre
(2007)

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If something goes wrong we British look for blame elsewhere but the Japanese tend to take blame upon themselves. We say the traffic made us late for work - they say they didn't allow enough time for the traffic: they take personal responsibility. Things we see as no fault of our own may, to a Japanese, bring a sense of personal shame. How much stronger then when you combine such cultural attitudes with something that is much more widely encountered: the guilt that people often feel when disaster strikes and they survive when others don't.

Why you when there were others more deserving? It is a guilt that affects soldiers whose comrades have been killed, people in all kinds of accidents, natural disasters and terrorist attacks, even those who escape disease that strikes down those close to them.

This play, written by Inoue in 1994 under the original title Chichi to Kuraseba (When I Live with My Father) and translated here by Roger Pulvers, is about that kind of guilt: in this case that of a young woman who is a survivor when 140,000 others died; a survivor of the destruction of Hiroshima when the 'Little Boy' atomic bomb was dropped on that city on 6th August 1945.

It is three years after the dropping of the first atomic bomb. Japan is still rigidly controlled by General MacArthur's occupying army. We meet her first during a thunderstorm, its lightning and thunderclaps a reminder of the bomb. She's frightened and so is her father: he is hiding in a cupboard. At the library where she works she has met a man she likes. He's a little strange: while everyone else tries to forget the bomb and doesn't mention it or anything to do with it, he collects fragments from the ruins and she has agreed to store them for him.

Her father is delighted: he wants her to be happy; but she keeps turning her back on the idea of a relationship. Is it, her father asks, because she is still suffers from radiation sickness and worries about its effect on any child? No; they have thought about that and decided it is a risk worth taking. Yet still she is equivocal. She doesn't deserve to be happy she thinks and talks of the dead, especially a girl who, because of fortuitous circumstance she credits with her survival. She feels guilt that she was protected by being behind a stone when her father was standing above her on the veranda.

Her father is always there. His job seems to be looking after her: he dons an apron, does the dusting, and makes sure that there are pots to catch the drips from their leaking roof. It is not the typical behaviour of even a loving father of that date and then you realise he is not quite what he seemed.

Mamoru Iriguchi has set it in a six-mat room drawn like a cut-out model, complete with tabs to fold and glue. As well as props and furniture, the actors bring on painted window views, which they change from scene to scene. There is a simple, almost manga quality about it which matches perfectly Eiji Kusuhara's playing of Takezo, the father. In other things I have seen him do Kusuhara has essentially been a funny man, given to broad playing, but here he finds a delicate gentleness for this devoted daddy without losing any of his sense of comedy. As daughter Mitsue, Noriko Sakura is enchanting. Her formal demeanour breaks into delightful smiles and you can see into her heart and she carries of a description of horrors with skilled restraint.

In a production with English actors there would be the problem of whether or not to attempt a Japanese accent - or find on English one that would match that of Hiroshima. Here both performers use their own accented English which would have sounded odd with an idiomatic English translation, but the decision here has been to translate literally from the Japanese. It sounded as though it has Japanese structure, so that they retain a foreignness. It is to the performers' credit that this does not prove a barrier, though it does sometimes leave gaps in understanding, especially when Kusuhara explodes in a rush of emphatic hectoring.

Director Togo Igawa has drawn touching performances from his actors which blend into a production that also matches the other plane on which the play is written. His formalised scene changes help to suggest that other level in a way with a tongue-in-cheek lightness. In this case, I believe, he has been right to emphasise the Japaneseness of the play and he has certainly made me want to see more of Inoue's work, though for a play on a less specific topic other solutions might be more appropriate for a British audience. One thing is not clear: why is it called The Face of Jizo rather than The Face of Takezo? Is there something I missed in those different emphases of Japanese delivery?

Until 10th November at Arcola Studio 2

Reviewer: Howard Loxton