Recently Japan has been looking back to the Sixties. Not in a nostalgic, Swinging London/Beatles Mania kind of way – but with unease, and belated recognition of a time in the country’s past when there was serious political motivation and action.
Although we have yet to see a serious attempt to document fully the student uprisings (which, while not on the scale of France, were far more ambitious than, say, Britain’s), there has been interest on film in the domestic terrorists, in particular the Asama Sansou incident by a splinter group of the Red Army Faction, which later became the Japanese Red Army and committed many international atrocities. One of Japan’s best-kept secrets is that, in spite of a conservative veneer, it in fact has a very radical recent history, with numerous hijackings, attacks and deaths, mostly in the name of the Far Left.
Enemy by Ryuta Horai looks back to the protests by farmers and other activists that surrounded the building of Narita airport in the late Sixties and early Seventies.
It seems unimaginable now: every month brings a new development; a new tunnel, highway, building. There are no protests. There is no action. The cool cats of Shimokitazawa grumble about some of the planned construction work there but do nothing. The proposed transfer of Tsukiji market to the Odaiba area has met with distaste and anger, but as yet we have not seen mass protest. Only the recent huge demonstrations in Okinawa over Futenma base might join the ranks of the Narita movement, along with the 1970 Anpo struggle the last serious mass political event in post-war Japanese history. At its height in the early Seventies hundreds were injured and arrested, many of them elderly men and women. But as always — as we see in Okinawa — the interests of the central (and Tokyo) government won out, and the rights of rural people were quashed.
In the play we start with the comfortable house of a well-to-do urban family, and the familiar trait of the unexpected vistor(s) from the past. Two old-ish men talk their way into the home while the father is out; the children are exasperated and confused. There are scenes of tension and awkward courtesy. Yes, we’ve been here many times before.
But if you’re expecting something on an Arthur Miller or even Ibsen scale, you will be disappointed, because Horai mainly writes his play as a comedy, with extended interludes of a flamenco-dancing housewife and a bullying daughter, contrasted with country bumpkin outsiders.
The father finally comes home and meets the visitors, two old friends from the Narita protests forty years ago today. They stay for three days and integrate into the family, while uncomfortable memories of failure and defeat surface, ones which also have parallels with the present.
The family contains many of the seeds of contemporary social issues in Japan: the son is thirty-one years old still living at home; he lost his temping job eighteen months ago and now works at a convenience store. The daughter is also over thirty and resorting to internet konkatsu to find her future partner and happiness. Narita might have been a long time ago but the Lost Decade has now entered its third decade, and the apathy and failure of the younger generation mirrors that of the people of the Sixties who, though their politics failed, are now running the country. (Upcoming authority figures are a joke: the son’s friend is a policeman and a bumbling fool.)
Horai’s play has many themes important to Japan today but lacks dramatic development. It seems to play safe and never really gets to the difficult or provocative ideas of the Narita struggle, nor the contemporary issues.
There is an excellent scene where the father tries to tell his son about the Narita movement while the latter is much more intent on playing an online war game. (In fact, this game serves as a rather overplayed metaphor throughout of military conflict; the play begins with its cacophony.) However, the comedic moments are too many and the play cannot successfully straddle drama and humour without belittling its ambitious themes. The play’s secondary characters are also rather over-the-top and one-dimensional comic caricatures for the most part; only the father, son and one of the two visitors are fully developed.
The promised real conflict between the visitors and the father — where they might force him to face up to his failure — never really comes. Significantly the most engaging moment is a symbolic fight between the men to kill a cockroach, with the visitors trying to use a travel magazine that the father studies as part of his dreams to go on a long European trip (flying from Narita, of course).
A worthy, well-meaning state-of-the-nation play for Japan but this time there was no revolution.
Enemy by Ryuta Horai
July 1 to 18, at New National Theatre (The Pit)