Othello, Shakespeare Company of Japan and Pirikap, dir. Kazumi Shimodate and Debo Akibe. Tara Arts, London. 7 August 2019
By Sarah Olive
It’s a popular fallacy in Japan that it is difficult to produce Othello because the country is too culturally homogenous: fallacious because, in Japan, there are several marginalised indigenous populations plus zainichi Koreans (usually denoting Koreans who came to Japan as its colonial subjects) and, in the twenty-first century, an increasing immigrant population with the largest numbers coming from China and Vietnam. Gaijin (outside + person) is a term often applied to both temporary visitors and non-Japanese nationals resident in Japan, with opinions about its usage ranging along a continuum between innocuous and derogatory. There is a history of, and ongoing, prejudice against all of these groups in Japan.
Happily, this production undercuts this fallacy, and junks a tradition still seen in Japan of playing Othello in blackface or brownface, by focusing on tensions between ethnically Japanese and Ainu people, who have belatedly been recognised by the Japanese national government as the indigenous people of Japan’s northernmost island, Hokkaido. The production opens with several performances from Ainu traditional culture by four Ainu women from the dance group Pirikap (directed by Debo Akibe, they are Yuka Hayasaka, Yuni Hayasaka, Chiyomi Fujioka and Ayumi Ueno). These include a mukkur performance (a kind of mouth harp played by women to initiate courtship), a crane dance where the women’s boldly patterned jackets were flapped over their heads to becoming beating wings, and a tonkori performance (a stringed instrument, held vertically over the heart). At first giving the impression of a variety show of Ainu arts, the performances became increasingly well connected to Dezuma’s (Ai Ishida) marriage to Othello (Takafumi Mito) as these actors appeared on stage in their wedding garb and the ire of characters like Roderigo (Natsuki Katou) and Brabantio (Masayoshi Fujino) at the match emerged. For example, the tonkori was originally developed as an aid to mourning a lost child, while crane dances offer multiple possible commentaries on the experience of fledging a chick, warding off evil and mateship. Othello wore clothes denoting his Ainu heritage. Dezuma initially wore a red chrysanthemum kimono showing her Japanese ethnicity: chrysanthemums are associated with the imperial family of Japan (indeed, its seal comprises of the flower’s image), symbolise longevity and renewal and connote Japanese fine arts, in which it is a common motif. Upon her marriage (vows taken in the Ainu language), she exchanged this for a matanpushi (a headband, handed down from Othello’s mother it stood in for the handkerchief of Shakespeare’s play) and robe embroidered and patterned in the same way as the Ainu performers. Othello’s Christianity in Shakespeare’s play became, in this production, a vociferous commitment to the Ainu gods.
This Othello, raised within a Japanese military household, holds a senior role in the forces of a Japanese clan guarding against a Russian invasion (the Russian island of Sakhalin is separated from Hokkaido by less than thirty miles of sea). His account of his exploits describes a wintery northern landscape of snow, bears, and, when the thaw comes, plum blossom. The sea lies at the centre of this verbal canvas, and references to fishing adventures here join up with the narrative details of the voyage to combat the invading fleet elsewhere in the play. The storm that destroys the Russians and brings Othello safely to Hokkaido is woven into Ainu story-telling, being performed by the Ainu women who billow sheets in imitation waves. Othello retells his story of joining the Japanese in Hokkaido and falling in love with Desdemona to a backdrop of kirigami (paper cut-out) images projected onto the stage wall, interestingly a Japanese rather than Ainu art form, so the story of his love for the Japanese general’s daughter has become aesthetically Japanese in his imagination. This aesthetic, black figures on a white backdrop, was echoed when the murder of Roderigo by Yago was performed in lighting which silhouetted them.
It’s a something of a truism to say that Iago (here, Yago) is the best role in a production, and it applies here. Yago adds to his rationale for his malice towards Othello that he is himself ‘half Ainu’ (rataskep in Ainu). Yago’s hair and beard echoed Othello’s, but his clothes seemed more in tune with those of the Japanese army. This adds a compelling twist to his motives and reweights the whole story towards the Ainu perspective. The programme provided an extract of a public conversation between the Japanese and Ainu co-directors, in which Akibe seems to caution fellow Ainu people not to ‘retaliate’ against or seek ‘revenge’ on ‘the Japanese’ for years of ‘discrimination’ and ‘mistreatment’, but offer ‘confronting’ dramatic representations of them. Akibe apparently asked Shimodate to make Yago Ainu as well as Othello. His words, translated into English, suggest that his request was about equality of representation, adding nuance to the production, and avoiding Shimodate’s first impulse to lionise the Ainu through Othello : ‘There are plenty of Ainu villains…Victims of mistreatment can join up to resist, but they can also turn on each other. And that can be the more savage’.
Isamu Izumori conveyed Yago’s villainy with his easy shifts between outward, crass bonhomie (miming voluble urination against a wall as ‘one of the lads’) and devious plotting (parodying Othello and Dezuma’s sexual encounters in ways that both titillated Roderigo and himself). In the final scene, he faced Othello, with his hands on the other’s shoulders, squarely; faced death squarely; laughing into Othello’s and death’s face. His cackling after being stabbed suggested his commitment to villainy and to his own perverse form of bushido (samurai behavioural code/ethics), in an outrageous and dishonourable death that contrasted strongly with Othello’s quiet determination not to leave Dezuma’s side but to join her in death (even though his belatedly recovered sense of devotion remains, as ever, unpalatable in the twenty-first century). He reprised an earlier set of gestures reminiscent of those used to waft incense over your face and body at a Buddhist temple, and therefore to cleanse and bless you – though these are likely to have a, possibly different, Ainu significance — before falling on his knife and Dezuma, as the Ainu women surrounded the corpses, perhaps to reclaim them.
Despite Othello’s not being the most obvious soil from which to grow feminist theatre, there was much to like about the production’s treatment of women actors and roles. Several female actors played male roles, effortlessly adopting a lower pitch for their speeches, in a pleasant contrast to this season at the Royal Shakespeare Company where getting more women on stage has involved rewriting roles as female, with rather variable success and debatable contribution to the plays’ hermeneutics. Emilia was played by the producer, Kate Yamaji, apparently at very short notice. The small playing space made Emilia’s accusations to Yago of his possible villainy even more awkward than usual, cutting closer to the bone, and it was delightful to watch him try to shrug off her indictments. The Ainu women performers joined the action beyond dancing and singing. For example, they echoed various curses heaped on Dezuma, by her father and, later, Othello, not so much agreeing with them as heightening their fearfulness for her or perhaps for the impact conflict would have on the Ainu people. They sprang up as though to protect Dezuma when Othello would strike her, hands over their aghast mouths. They made deep, buzzing, crane calls when Yago suggests strangling Dezuma to Othello as a remedy for his distress at her (falsely) alleged infidelity. Was this female fellow feeling, or feeling for a woman they had actively adopted into their culture and who was now, for all her apparent privilege of wealth and dominant culture, being made a vulnerable outsider by Othello? Unusually, Bianka (portrayed as an Ainu woman by Shima Koda) bore no outward indicators of her status in the play as ‘whore’, perhaps suggesting the production’s refusal to judge or demean women in colonized lands who make their living from sex-work with the oppressing forces. Her antagonistic relationship with other Ainu women was marked by their scattering away from her and her snatching up the tune they had been singing and rendering it parodically herself. There followed an interesting exchange with Kashiro (a typically dashing Casio, played by Kinji Watanabe) which poignantly captured her conflicted identity and loyalties. Kashiro told her he had made a copy of a headband he had found, showing her the original and the copy. Her immediate exclamation was one of horror, since, as she explained, it is not in the Ainu culture to steal designs in that way. However, she then accepts the copy for herself, explaining that she can’t say no to a gift from her irresistible lover.
The subtitles, written by Fumiaki Konno, largely using a mix of Shakespearean and modern English idiom, were clear and mercifully concise, allowing one’s eyes to get back to the action on-stage. The action was tight, fitting the production into around two hours and twenty-minutes including an interval. This production saved oodles of time usually spent languorously changing Desdemona into her wedding night apparel. Instead, Dezuma slipped on her Ainu robe first seen in the wedding scene over her ordinary wear. Instead of watching Emilia make up a bed with immaculate hospital corners, this Emiria (Kate Yamaji) promptly plonked an over-size cushion on stage. Instead of the usual ‘Willow song’, Dezuma touchingly sung ‘the song of the Ainu’, which Othello had taught her and which captured her own dedication to immersing herself in Ainu language and culture. Perhaps more controversially, Dezuma’s fleeting revival was cut: her strangulation with the headband, returned to Othello by Emiria as proof of Dezuma’s fidelity, was instantaneous. Otherwise, the few weak points were bits of over-acting between Yago and Roderigo, in their plotting scenes, that jarred with the otherwise naturalistic performances. Additionally, the multiple occasions when Dezuma is struck could be either more decisively realistic or stylised –from my vantage in the theatre, they hovered unconvincingly between the two.
While, as reviewer, I am perhaps representative of a good chunk of the audience on the night – white, mainly monolingual, know a bit about Shakespeare and about Japan, but little about the Ainu people – I would be fascinated to read reviews of the production by others with a greater knowledge of Ainu and Japanese language and culture as well as those newer to them and to Shakespeare.