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Stage Import Brings East and West Together

<i> T. H. McCulloh writes regularly about art for Westside/Valley Calendar</i>

Kipling was wrong when he said, “Never the twain shall meet.” East is meeting West on a regular basis these days, arms open and minds on both sides hungry for cultural nourishment.

An intriguing import from Japan opens Monday at the Lee Strasberg Creative Center for a too-brief six-performance run. It’s a comedy drama by 30-year-old actor-writer Masayuki Imai called “The Winds of God,” directed by Yoko Narahashi, with the author in one of the leading roles.

In Japan the play is called “Kamikaze"-- kami means God, kaze means wind. The winds of God, in the story, that drive people to their fates propel two young Japanese comics to the big time in Tokyo. But an accident en route suddenly propels them further, to their prior incarnations as kamikaze pilots in World War II.

Director Narahashi says: “It’s about the love for life, and not just about war. It’s about an amazing friendship that lasts over a couple of lifetimes. That’s what Masayuki wants to depict, the love between two friends, and this great desire to live. I’ve met a lot of the old kamikaze pilots; all they want is peace. They were all supposed to die. It was assumed they would die at 21.

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“One of them--and I felt there was guilt--said, ‘Why am I privileged to live and have a family, when all of my friends are gone?” It was the education at the time. They were like any other young people who were afraid, who could only desperately try to write out a will, who would die for their mother, or for some girl. They were volunteers, at the beginning.”

There’s a scene in the play in which one of the pilots asks another, “What about your youth? Do you want to throw all this away?” The pilot answers, “I want all these things, but there’s no way I can get out of this.” The director shakes her head and says, “Kamikaze is a touchy point in Japan. It was a losing war.”

Narahashi, in her early 40s, is also a teacher--she introduced method acting to Japan. As the daughter of a diplomat, she was raised in Canada. She graduated from International Christian University in Tokyo with a bachelor’s degree in linguistics, but realized that she wanted to be an actress. She moved to New York when she was 20 and spent two years studying acting under Sanford Meisner at the Neighborhood Playhouse and observing at Lee Strasberg’s Actors Studio.

“It was the turning point of my life,” she admits. “The amazing thing is that I learned too that deep in my soul I was Japanese, and I must take care of this, and understand it, and understand the other parts of myself, and try to make this understanding work.”

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Part of making it work was taking what she had learned back home with her. The way Harold Clurman, Strasberg and Meisner had adapted Stanislavski’s exercises for their students, Narahashi adapted them for hers.

“You go to Japan and see TV, and you’ll know why it must be done. We’re still working on the old concepts of Kabuki . It’s taken me many years. I’ve been working 17 years on this. I’ve had to adapt the method so it’s easier to handle. The Japanese people are very bad at confrontation. We’re not used to it. For example, in kendo, when we’re both looking at each other, the other person is waiting for the time when you lose concentration. It’s like when you draw a gun. Whoever is faster, as the aggressor, is not the point. You wait for the opening, the weakness.”

Then Narahashi talks of the man who founded Japanese Noh theater. “His principles,” she says, “are very much like Stanislavski’s. They’re thinking alike. You have Noh , super-structured, super-disciplined, each step very precise. The Noh actor must fill this with his grief, but there’s this tremendous discipline outside. It cannot be just all emotion.

“Japanese actors will bear many things; they will be patient with many things. They’re organized. The method opens the freedom to peak. My belief is in the blending of the two. With the Japanese, I have to give them the time to deal with the freedom. I cannot tell you what a difference there is in freedom between our two countries.”

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Strasberg Creative Center’s Hedy Sontag saw those differences as minimal, at least in Narahashi’s work. Invited to Japan to lecture, she found the lectures turning into workshops. “Then Yoko had me see a couple of productions they were working on,” she recalls. “One of them was ‘Winds of God.’ When I saw that and saw how much Yoko was interested in theater, I wanted to share it with somebody.”

Sontag started sharing early in her studies with Strasberg. She would tell him about a basement production of “Medea” she had seen, and he would respond by showing her a book he’d gotten on Kabuki. “This created in me a knowledge and a thirst for more knowledge. It expanded my own feeling for the arts. I want to see things that are new, young and exciting, and that nourishes me. When I saw Yoko’s things, I thought she was my Eastern counterpart.

“I wanted to share our viewpoints with them. The commitment these people have in their work, we need to reinforce a little bit more in the United States, so it’s not just about the commercial thing--but the purity of it, the joy.”

Narahashi runs a Tokyo conglomerate that includes a school that teaches English through drama, with 5,000 students, and a professional performers’ studio that develops film and theater projects. She also teaches Japanese businessmen English through drama to facilitate their dealings with the West. She is well-known in Japan as a lyricist, having written for the hit group Godiego, which had several No. 1 hits.

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Nevertheless, theater and films are her passion and her means of communicating her ideas. “This is my thing,” she admits. “I have part of my life in the West, part in Japan. My children have mixed blood. I might not be rooted anywhere, but my mission is to try to bridge the gaps. I can only do this through my media, which is drama, theater and film. Up to now, drama has always been represented by Kabuki or Noh, or real avant-garde things, but there’s never been modern Japanese drama, with good acting, that can really come up to the same level.”

Her efforts are paying off. Her students are doing very well in film and television, and not only in Japan. One was in “Empire of the Sun”; another was nominated for best supporting actor in an Australian film. A third recently made a film here with Charlton Heston. “I feel for their sake,” she says, “that I must get them to have results.”

Maybe she’s proudest of the author of “Winds of God.” This production will be broadcast on TV in Japan (and on Japanese cable here), and will be filmed as a major Japanese motion picture in 1992. Imai likes “to put himself on the edge,” Narahashi says. When he first auditioned for her a decade ago, she asked him what words he liked in English. The first two words he ever spoke to her can be very important to an actor--or a writer. They were guts and passion.


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