Select Page

Unforeseen connections with America’s war in Iraq

On Thursday, April 3, 2003 members of Milton Academy’s Asian Society and director Bill Moore (English department and modern languages department) will present The Decline And Fall Of The Suzaku by Yuko Mishima in Wigg 3203.

The Genesis of the Production by Bill Moore
Sometimes when one looks for a unique item, it falls under one’s eyes just when the time is ripe, and so it was with Yukio Mishima’s play, The Decline and Fall Of The Suzaku. I had wanted to work with an Asian play for some time, using an all-Asian cast, and lo and behold, a collection of translated Mishima plays suddenly materialized on the drama shelf of Wordsworth Book Store in Cambridge.

I was immediately drawn to this particular play for several reasons. Perhaps the least of these was the timeliness of the subject of war. As the couple of months wore on that we worked on this play, strange connections occurred with the American preparations for war with Iraq, even down to the language used. For example, the father in Mishima’s play, Tsunetaka, comments to his brother at one point, “Our Lord the emperor says, ‘Give up your life.’ When he does that, you just go and give up your life.” I happened to turn on the radio recently to hear an American military officer firing up the troops with these words, “When the President says ‘Go!’, it’s hammer time, you go in there and give it your all!” I did not, however, pick the play in a gesture of protest, because as a work of art by one of Japan’s greatest 20th-Century authors, it explores much more than the futility of warfare, or even the cultural cost to Japan of its militaristic build-up in the 30’s and defeat in WW II, a subject certainly dear to Mishima.

Drawn to the beauty of Japan’s culture, and repelled by its cruelty during the War, I have longed for any artistic treatment of this subject that would get at such a defining mid-century phenomenon both East and West — I’m speaking about Fascism — for those of us who grew up in the shadow of those times. Mishima, for all his late renown as a rightist dedicated to a militaristic cause at the end of his life (when he committed suicide through ritual disembowelment), as an artist, dared to take on the difficult subjects of blind idealism, cultural myopia, rampant patriarchy, and to present the issues theatrically for us to examine. He speaks to us from a privileged position, inheritor of an ancient theatrical tradition, the No and Kabuki drama, and then most consciously of the Western tradition stemming from Greek tragedy. He specifies in the title that his play The Decline And Fall Of The Suzaku is “based on Euripedes’ Heracles,” and by that he meant The Madness of Heracles. In Euripedes’ play Heracles, in a fit of god-induced madness, slays his wife and children. He is dissuaded from suicide once he regains his sanity, and lives on in grief. Aside from weaving a similarity of plot with the ancient Greek model in mind, Mishima clearly wants to study the concept of perfectly passive loyalty as exemplified by the aristocratic father in his play. The name “Suzaku” has resonance as the name of an ancient emperor, a palace in Kyoto and one of that city’s boulevards. The decline of the aristocracy, and indeed, of all that was noble in ancient Japanese tradition appear often as leitmotifs in Mishima’s work.

Since this is a theatrical production put on in translation, and mounted far away in both time and place from the culture described, we have tried to be true to the vision of the playwright, and not necessarily exact in reproducing what must have existed back then in war-time Japan. Our job is to suggest, and then let Mishima’s theatricality take over. There may be some unintended gaffes that a person of Japanese background, and of a certain age, might note, but that is what they are: unintended. The spirit of this production springs from a great love and admiration for Japanese culture, and a deep desire to give this playwright an airing in this country. Those involved in the play are indebted to all those who offered advice concerning costumes and make-up.

The Music
It was a challenge to infuse this production with appropriate music, and yet, the play absolutely calls for a rich musical accompaniment by virtue of the fact that the Suzaku family prides itself on its patron goddess who plays the biwa, an ancient Japanese lute. A little research in local record shops and in my own library turned up a wide variety of music featuring the most important of the traditional Japanese instruments. In the music picked for the play, itself, there are examples of kubuki theatre music, ancient airs, traditional tunes, threaded throughout the production, and attempts were made to use appropriate music for the dramatic moment, for example, the airs that accompany the particular season — there are four scenes, corresponding to the four seasons — usually have something to do with that season, when they are not associated particularly with a certain character. The music that accompanies the mention of the moon when the family gathers, derives from a kabuki drama featuring a peasant looking at the moon. In other words, the music is not random, and does not necessarily correspond to a Western idea of the apparent “mood”. Much of the traditional music has a distinctly melancholy flow to it, to a Western ear, but we have tried to go beyond the obvious and stretch our sensibilities. This said, some of the music includes both Japanese and Western instruments, in noticeably modern arrangements. This is a play about an ancient, Asian culture influenced, then invaded and taken over by a Western one. The music overall intends to convey that process by using truly authentic traditional music at times, mixed with the hybrid results of Western instruments and the modern adaptations of groups like the drummers of the group Kodo.