after the quake
Britain’s The Guardian newspaper has called him one of the “world’s greatest living novelists,” yet Haruki Murakami didn’t start writing until he was 29. Legend has it that Murakami was inspired to write his first novel, Hear the Wind Sing, while watching a baseball game between the Yakult Swallows and the Hiroshima Carp. Murakami claims that in the instant that American-born player Dave Hilton hit a double, he suddenly realized that he could write a novel. He went home and began writing that night. He worked on it during the evening for several months while working days at the bar. After completing the novel, he sent it to a literary contest and ended up winning first prize.
From that auspicious beginning sprang a writing career that has seen Murakami sell millions of books in multiple languages. With an idiosyncratic writing style that fuses surrealism with strong western influences, Murakami has achieved a level of popularity that has resulted in criticism from the Japanese literary establishment. His appeal can be summed up in this description by Tenzing Sonam, a Tibetan filmmaker: How do you describe a Murakami novel? Take one part hard-boiled detective fiction à la Raymond Chandler, throw in some Philip K. Dick, add a dash of Kafka, a sprinkling of Borges, and for good measure, shake the whole thing up with lots of oddball love and sex and… well, you get the idea.
1987s Norwegian Wood was a breakthrough for Murakami and he received national recognition, selling millions of copies among Japanese youths and making him a literary superstar in Japan. Unusually, the book was printed in two separate volumes, sold together, one with a green cover, the other red.
Murakami left Japan in the mid-eighties, travelling throughout Europe before settling in the United States. In 1994 he published The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, a novel more socially conscious than his previous work, dealing in part with the topic of war crimes in Manchuria. The novel won the Yomiuri Prize.
During the writing of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Japan was shaken by the twin traumas of the Kobe earthquake and the Aum Shinrikyo sarin gas attack. In the aftermath of these events, he returned to Japan and published his first work of non-fiction, Underground, and the short story collection after the quake.
This month, Pi Theatre and Rumble Productions team up to present after the quake at Studio 16. Running November 19 to December 5, after the quake is an adaptation of two stories from the book of short stories by the same name. The production features local actors Manami Hara, Alessandro Juliani, Kevan Ohtsji, Tetsuro Shigematsu and Leina Dueck.
Co-directors Richard Wolfe and Craig Hall, along with actor Tetsuro Shigematsu, took time out of a busy rehearsal schedule to talk to The Bulletin about after the quake.
In Their Own Words
Richard Wolfe, Craig Hall and Tetsuro Shigematsu
Having read through the two stories that the play is based on—Honey Pie & Superfrog Saves Tokyo—I’m intensely curious. I’ve never read Murakami before and they’re beautifully written. The stories are very different from one another, though, and I’ll be curious to see how they are woven together into a cohesive whole. How did you come upon the idea of presenting these two stories as a singular piece of theatre?
Richard Wolfe Although Craig and I had spoken a few years ago about doing an original adaptation of Murakami’s work, permissions are quite difficult to obtain. Last year, while I was doing my programming reading for possible upcoming seasons, I discovered that a recent adaptation of after the quake had been done at Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago and the rights for this script were being made available for the first time. Steppenwolf company member and Tony Award winning director and author Frank Galati had done the adaptation based on the Jay Rubin translation of the English short story publication. I went back to Craig, we read the script, both liked it, and the two companies decided to go ahead with a co-production of the Canadian premiere.
Frank Galati created an adaptation that uses the story–teller convention to bring the two stories together. The two stories represent Murakami’s work in terms of style. One, Honey Pie, is a love story, and the second, Superfrog Saves Tokyo, is a fantastical tale of a man and his visitation by a six foot frog. The show as a whole features a narrator who speaks first and basically welcomes us into the theatre. It also has a character (Junpei from Honey Pie) who is a writer and who, along with the Narrator, creates the different worlds we see on stage.
As is the case with the whole collection, Murakami explores themes that dramatize the inter-connectivity of a culture that has faced a traumatic event, in this case the Kobe earthquake of 1995. Murakami lays out a universe where the real and imagined overlap. That is the experience we are constructing for our audience—we’re blurring the line where reality ends and imagination begins—not just in terms of how the audience perceives the characters’ lives within the play, but for the audience itself.
Murakami has become almost an iconic figure of not only Japanese literature, but world literature. What is it like bringing his words to life on the stage?
Craig Hall In a word it’s magical. Murakami is one of my favourite authors. I stumbled across his writing almost fifteen years ago now. I say “stumbled” because I bought his short story collection The Elephant Vanishes with no previous knowledge of his work. I just liked the title. I devoured it and then went out and purchased every piece of his writing I could get my hands on and began recommending his books to anyone who would listen. I’ve heard similar stories from a number of other people. I think it’s because his work is so accessible. While his characters and settings are Japanese, there is an ethos at their heart that is universal and will speak to audiences of any cultural background. His stories are also infused with a sort of magical realism that lends itself to creative staging. Things like a six-foot tall talking frog and an Earthquake Man who tries to shove people into a tiny box, these are the very best kinds of challenges to give to a director.
Tetsuro, I understand you were in Japan during the earthquake. What was that experience like?
Tetsuro Shigematsu I was living in Tokyo during the Kobe earthquake and the sarin gas attacks. So that was a really remarkable time for me personally but of course for Japan as a nation. While I was there I remember a friend of mine saying that even before these events took place that there was a change happening that you could really feel. There was wildness in the air. That it felt like something was about to happen. It was almost as if people were able to tap into their animal sense. Just as animals sometimes act a little strangely or erratically before a flood or an earthquake. I noticed friends commenting on the fact that there was a restlessness, there was a pent-up energy.
Does it help you relate to your character in the play?
TS I felt that this was a story I could really relate to because even before my role as an actor I consider myself a writer. So here is a character, Junpei, who I think is essentially sort of an alienated person. He’s lonely, and he sublimates his need to connect through his art form. That’s something I can really relate to because though I’m often “out there” so to speak, I’m actually an extremely shy person. I can be on stage or on the radio but really, for me, it is just a coping mechanism to learn how to connect with people. Like Junpei, we all have had experiences of unrequited love. At end of the day, just before you’re falling asleep, if someone does have regrets it’s probably not about things that you did do, but the things that you didn’t do. And those things that you didn’t do often have to do with missed opportunities in terms of relationships. That you didn’t say something in particular. So I’m thinking that it’s interesting that Murakami…well Junpei is a thinly disguised version of the author. You know you usually find the author in just about any play—here it’s a little more clear. It’s interesting for me that he is able to maybe create closure on something, that it’s probably an open loop in his own subconscious.
Murakami’s writing has elements of surrealism woven through it—I imagine that lends itself to some interesting moments in stage adaptation. Can you talk about some of those elements?
TS Oddly the imagery in after the quake, of speaking to this frog figure about saving Tokyo from an earthquake, really doesn’t strike me as surreal at all. When I was in Japan I was studying butoh. That was really trippy for me because this is a dance form that involves a form of mysticism in the sense that they engage in very detailed visualizations. This dance form really began to play with my mind. I experienced degrees of depression and loneliness that didn’t really seem to coincide with what was happening in my life at the time. Because of butoh I had a shift in consciousness. And then these events were taking place and it was almost as if I was being shook by forces external as well as internal. I was living in a 6 mat apartment which was tiny, and it was only 20,000 yen. It was nothing. But the thing was, the walls were paper-thin. The people who lived there were either poor students or people slightly on the fringe of society. So both literally and figuratively you got the sense of people on all sides of you.
I remember there was a window that was just literally three feet away from a fence. I was constantly seeing cats sort of skulking by in the periphery of my vision. And sometimes I would see huge gokiburi-cockroaches in my apartment. Once I left out my 7-11 bento box and there was this thick trail of ants crawling out of it. So at certain points, even though I was surrounded by people, I was also having these strange interactions with animals. At one point there was this cat living on the floor beneath me, and it would scream at night—like wailing. It was my first time I realized that animals can lose their sanity. This cat that was moaning and screaming literally 12 feet away from me, right beneath my head as I was trying to sleep, and given my peculiar state of mind…it was very, Cronenbergesque, you know, Naked Lunch. So the surreal tone of this play and the imagery and the feel of it is all oddly familiar to me. I never thought I would enter another world that would reflect that experience.
How has the rehearsal process been for you?
CH Really incredible so far. This is a very special group of people that we have managed to assemble. The cast is gelling really well and we are having a lot of fun with the material. Murakami’s writing seems very simple on the surface, but once you begin to analyse it in the rehearsal process, to delve into things like character motivation and story arch, you realise that there are hidden depths there. Even at this early stage in the process, the actors are unearthing moments of sorrow and levity that were not immediately apparent. I think the world of the play will just keep getting richer as we move through the process.
Given that the story is set in Japan, were there challenges in casting the production?
RW Representation in the theatre is an important issue and Craig and I engaged in a very rigorous conversation about how to cast the play. The choice ran from complete colour blind casting, to using a variety of Asian actors, to engaging a fully Japanese cast. Our preference was for a Japanese cast. We felt that, although Murakami is a universal writer and the subject matter is modern (his work has been translated into 33 languages), the rehearsal process would be that much more interesting and the results more detailed if we had people who could understand, first hand, the subtle cultural nuances of Japan. As it turns out, we were able to assemble a great cast made up of individuals whose backgrounds range from first to third generation Japanese Canadian. The non-Japanese actor is Alessandro Juliani who plays the Narrator and a giant frog. His parents are from Chinese and Italian backgrounds. This is a fantastic company and we are very pleased.
Any teasers you can provide to provoke audiences into attending after the quake?
CH Well I’m hoping that the opportunity to see Murakami’s writing for the first time on a Canadian stage will draw a lot of folks. We also have a fantastic cast that includes Manami Hara, Alessandro Juliani, Kevan Ohtsji, Tetsuro Shigematsu and Manami’s daughter Leina, and a top-notch design team that includes award winning electro acoustic composer Yota Kobayashi. If that isn’t enough, then perhaps mention of a six-foot tall talking frog will spark people’s curiosity.