“Ravens, We Shall Load Bullets”: Yukio Ninagawa’s timely revival of play about justice, protest and politics

Opening tomorrow as part of Festival/Tokyo 2014, “Ravens, We Shall Load Bullets” is a revival of the 1970’s play by Kunio Shimizu and directed by his long-time collaborator Yukio Ninagawa. First staged in 1971 by Ninagawa, it was revived in 2006 when Ninagawa formed his Saitama Gold Theater, comprised only of performers aged over 55. This revival was then produced again at KAAT in 2013, before touring to Paris.

It is now back in Japan on a second tour, first in Hong Kong and then going on to Paris again and other venues around Japan. Its brief run at F/T14 until November 26th has been extended by popular demand, with an extra performance added. While performed only in Japanese, an English synopsis is available (penned by yours truly).

ravens we shall load bullets yukio ninagawa

The play depicts a group of old, hagged women (the eponymous “ravens”) storming a court to rescue two young student activists who are standing trial for bombing a charity event. Despite their hoary ages, the women are armed and dangerous, and proceed to kill the agents of authority before presiding over their own kangaroo court. Who is qualified to mete out justice? Does seniority automatically mean legitimacy? Who should wield the sword of judgment?

The original staging in 1971 came against a backdrop of immense social unrest in Japan, including riots, bombings and mass protests, as well as sensation events such as the Yodogō hijacking earlier that year and the Rengō Sekigun (United Red Army) purge and siege on the near horizon. This was the height of New Left and radical protest movements in Japan (something of an obsession of mine), and it is hard to imagine the frisson that would have rippled through contemporary audiences as they watched what was happening on the streets be reflected as an allegorical satire about the Establishment, punishment and retribution.

The 1970’s also saw violent protests against the construction of what is today Narita International Airport. The anti-airport movement led to a particularly unusual alliance between older local farmers and younger student activists, and this cross-generation image is present in “Ravens, We Shall Load Bullets”, where the old women want to save their young kin from the prosecutors. However, such a federation is always uneasy, as it sometimes was at Sanrizuka, and the ravens eventually turn to dispense justice on the youthful radicals for their crimes. There is no black or white when it comes to morality.

Performed by the Saitama Gold Theater, with an average age of 75, an irony now is that the cast would very likely remember and may even have participated in the 1960’s and 1970’s protests, or at least the 1960 Anpo movement. The timing of the revival is also prescient as Japan witnesses a current resurgence in protests, student activism, and even self-immolations in protest at the government’s attempts to the change the Constitution.

“Ravens, We Shall Load Bullets” runs from November 23rd-26th at the Nishi-Sugamo Arts Factory.