Edaniku at Pomplaza Hall
Review by Matt Perkins, Dec. 2012)
Edaniku (Carcass) is an award-winning play by Takuya Yokoyama set in an artisan meat-shop in an industrial district of Tokyo. The piece dealt with big issues such as the ethics of meat production and the daily difficulty of working life in a slaughterhouse. In spite of tackling challenging social and political themes, many of which I learnt more about afterwards from my Japanese colleague, the piece managed to keep even an elementary Japanese speaker entertained. It switched quickly from one moment of tense dialogue in the slaughterhouse break room to another of more lively farce and violence.
The theatre at Pomplaza Hall is a converted pump-house, which still operates as part of the city’s waterworks. The building is a bizarrely successful marriage of functions. On the second floor there is small informative exhibition about the pump (in Japanese) alongside shelves lined with free leaflets and flyers for theatre in Fukuoka. The studio theatre is on the fourth floor. The play was set in the slaughterhouse’s break room. A leather tool-belt had been slung over the back of one of the white chairs on stage, displaying to the audience an impressive collection of precise looking knives. When the play began, a young worker in glasses, white overalls and a white cap sat down to eat a bowl of microwave noodles. He went through an exaggeratedly clinical ritual of wiping his hands several times, folding the top of the plastic film over very carefully, decanting a sauce pack into the middle of the bowl and then mixing his food vigorously with his chopsticks. You didn’t need to speak a word of Japanese to realize he was a craftsman. While a larger building nearby handled the preparation of regular meat, he and his older partner took care of irregular or special orders. In slaughterhouses the work is usually carried out by a production line. One worker stuns the animal, another kills it, another drains the blood and someone else slices it in two. This pair, an older shaggy haired worker and the younger worker with glasses, carried out the whole procedure themselves.
How much it is possible for a non-Japanese speaker to understand in a piece of conversational, realistic Japanese drama? A brief synopsis revealed that the play was about a missing piece of meat, a cow’s medulla oblongata, often used to test for BSE (otherwise known as ‘mad cow disease’). If it had been lost, a whole cow would be wasted and, potentially, workers’ jobs would be for the chop. I found that it was helpful to have the synopsis explained to me first. While I felt like important subtleties were passing me by the relationship between the characters on stage was communicated so well physically that not understanding the language didn’t prevent me enjoying the play or responding to the shifting mood. The two workers were friendly but there was something eerie about the situation in which they were being updated by telephone about the progress of the search party in locating a chunk of one of their carcasses. Their accents, the ways they carried themselves and their actions gave the impression of very strong characters.
The drama changed tack with the entry of a young man. My colleague described him as a NEET, an acronym used by the Japanese government to describe people not in employment, education or training. Wearing high-tops and expensive looking jeans the young man strutted around the stage, lounging back in one of the metal chairs, giving the artisans smug and revolted looks. Apparently, it wasn’t just because of my elementary Japanese that I couldn’t work out where he had come from. The two workers assumed he was from another slaughterhouse. The young worker took it upon himself to give the NEET a pep talk about his attitude. He showed him pictures of his family on his smart-phone. He wanted the young man to look back on the moment as a turning point is his life. The older man was far more resentful than his colleague of the oversized brat, who turned out to be the thirty-year-old son of a major client, hanging out in his workplace.
There was a great deal to enjoy about the production even if the finer points were lost on a non-Japanese speaker. We watched the journey of the younger worker from a polite, friendly craftsman to a paranoiac running about the stage yelling ‘taihen’ (its terrible) and waving a knife around. The more commanding performance of the older worker nicely offset his volatile partner, though he too had his moments where he lost his cool. I later learnt that the older worker had been responsible for an accident in a meat-shop in Osaka. His former partner, whom he had seriously injured, had just been threatened with redundancy in a different branch of this Tokyo meat company and had disappeared at the same time as the meat. He had also taken a gun. The medulla oblongata ended had up in this break-room, hidden in plain sight on a plastic bag in the middle of the table. Before I had some of these details explained to me, I nevertheless hugely enjoyed watching the three men chase the piece of meat around the room as it was swapped, concealed, pocketed, juggled, thrown about and once forced into the face of the young stranger by the older professional. The drama escalated into a kind of hostage situation. Knives were drawn and catastrophe seemed inevitable.
Edaniku is described in the program as ‘kaiwageki’, a conversational play. The genre seems unafraid to allow characters space to speak their mind, sometimes about issues that seem to be dodged elsewhere in the media. I recently saw a documentary on NHK in English about the production of Gyoza dumplings. International chefs were supposed to give their opinions on the likelihood of the dish growing more popular in Europe. An Italian chef spoke up about the environmental costs of transporting all that meat around Japan, let alone the world, and questioned the ethics of increasing production. The presenter acted as if he hadn’t heard him at all and asked: ‘But you have to agree, it is delicious’. This play didn’t answer the chef’s original question head on but reminded the audience that the finished product is never the whole story.
Edaniku had a very short run in Fukuoka but Iaku continue their tour in 2013 in Tokyo and Kyoto. While even elementary Japanese is a surprising amount of help when faced with a wordy play, even if the language seems a daunting, seeing realist drama in Japan was rewarding and entertaining.
I studied English Language and Literature at Oxford University and am currently studying Japanese at the Japan University of Economics in Fukuoka. I enjoy writing, directing and watching plays, theatre and dance. I am interested in learning more about Japan’s performing arts. As it can be tricky, especially with elementary Japanese, to track down the best shows I started this guide as a way to help English speakers stay up to date with what’s on. Keep checking the Fukuoka Now blog for up to date information about the performing arts in Fukuoka.