As Viewed by the Japanese
By BEN BRANTLEY
The barbarans are indeed a the gate,
and they are awful to behold. Their feral,
matted hair is as wild as a Gorgon's, their
faces distorted by the kinds of growths
found on exotic baboons. Their leader, who
stands at least seven feet tall, towers like
doom incarnate. Tremble and recoil, citizens
of the land: the Americans have arrived.
This herd of invaders, clomping into view
on the 60-foot runway that slices through the
audience at Avery Fisher Hall, belongs to
the inspired reconsideration of the 1976
musical "Pacific Overtures," which has been
directed with bountiful verve and
imagination by Amon Miyamoto for the New National Theater of Tokyo and
is part of the
Lincoln Center Festival 2002.
The coming of Commodore Perry and his
troops to the shores of Japan has always
been a showstopper in Stephen Sondheim
and John Weidman's fable of gunboat
diplomacy and cultural transformation.
Those who saw the original Broadway
production still marvel at
the immense paper dragon of
a ship created by the fabled designer
But Mr. Miyamoto and company have
devised their own highly original coup de
theatre for the occasion, and it, too, is sure
to linger in the memory. The ships are seen
only as fleeting, ambiguous shadows. But
the Ameficans, whose grotesquely stylized
appearances here were inspired by 19th-
century Japanese poster art, are canopied
by a vast American flag that shoots across
Confinued on Pαge5
Ben Hiura, center,
in the New Nadonal Theater
of Tokyo's production of
and John Weidman's
presented in the Lincoln Center Festival 2002.
Continued From First Arts Page
the theater's ceiling amid a flash of
Unlike the flags so abundantly on
display throughout the United States
recently, these Stars and Stripes rep-
resent not freedom but suffocation. It
is as if the sky has been shut off to
the Japanese by the strange new
breed of men that has come to Kan-
agawa in 1853.
opened at the Winter Garden Thea-
ter, in an opulent Kabuki-style pro-
duction directed by Harold Prince,
many reviewers were left cold by the
Show's heroic artistic daring. For
some, the essential problem lay in
the idea of Americans trying to rep-
resent a Japanese point of view.
In The New York Times, Walter
Kerr described it as a work without
"specific emotional or cultural bear-
ings" in which the audience is
"drawn neither East nor West." He
went on to ask of the ersatz Japanese
approach, “Why tell their story their
way, when they'd do it better？"Mr.
Miyamoto has risen to the implicit
challenge in Kerr's question and has
retranslated "Pacific Overtures" in
ways that go far beyond language.
（The show, which runs through Sat-
urday, is performed in Japanese
with English supertitles thatpresent
Mr．Sondheim’s original lyricslarge−
ly verbatim．) The form and theme of
the musical remain basically the
same. It's the scale and stylethat
have changed, and therein lies a
world of difference.
The eye-filling splendor of Mr.
Prince's production（which influ-
MAKE DREAMS COME TRUE :
THE FRESH AIR FUND PACIFICOVERTURES
Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim；book
by John Weidman；additional material by
Hugh Wheeler. Original Broadway production
directed by Harold Prince and produced by
Mr. Prince in association with Ruth Mitchell.
Directed by Amon Miyamoto; music director,
Kosuke Yamashita; conductor, Jun Nishino;
translator of book and lyrics, Kunihiko Hashi-
moto; sets by Rumi Matsui; lighting by Yasu-
taka Nakayama; costumes by Emi Wada;
sound by Kunio Watanabe; Choreography by
Rino Masaki; fight scenec oordinator，Akinori
Tani. Produced by the New National Theater,
Tokyo, artisticdirector, Tamiya Kuriyama;
tazawa Presented by the Lincoln Center Fes−
tival 2002. At Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Cen−
WITH：Takeharu Kunimoto, Norihide Ochi,
Ben Hiura, Haruki Sayama, Usaburo Oshima,
Shintaro Sonooka, Atsushi Haruta, Yuji Hirota,
Akira Sakemoto, Masaki Kosuzu, Kanjiro
Murakami, Shuji Honda, Kirihito Saito,
Makoto Okada, Shinichiro Hara,
Kyoko Donowaki, Urara Awata,
Shunpo, Mayu Yamada and Takeshi Ishikawa.
enced even the smaller York Theater
revival in 1984） has been abandoned
for a simpler approach that emphasizes
performers over spectacle. The
theatrical tradition that informs the
evening is not the picturesqueness of
Kabuki but the relative austerity of Noh.
Enacted within Rumi Matsui's
templelike frame, where shifting
screens define the space, the show
puts humm responses at center
stage instead of the epochal events
goes some distance toward
abstract show, a work that Mr. Sondheim
has said" is entirely about ideas."
Mind you, Mr, Weidman's book
still doesn't give the impression that
it's reaching for complex character
portraits. The two principal figures
Kayama（ShujiHonda）, men of
different classes who are differently
transformed by Western
influenceremain symbolic figures，
moving through the evening as
schematically as chess pieces.
Yetthere is a beguiling spirit of
intimacy abroad that lets you freshly
appreciate the ingenuity and
emotional variety of Mr. Sondheim's
songs. As performed by seven
musicians, in often minimalist
arrangements, the score registers the
calculated tensions between
Eastern and Western sensibilities
all the more piquantly.
The simple charms of " Poems, " in
which Manjiro and Kayama forge a
friendship by exchanging verse on a
journey, have never been more
evident. The same is true of the barbed
comic appeal of " Chrysanthemum
Tea, " in which a decadent shogun is
poisoned by his mother, and
"Welcome to Kanagawa, " in which a
madam and her prostitues anticipate
the arrival of lusty American sailors.
With wryly ritualized choreography
by Rino Masaki, these numbers
have a cozy , satiric spirit that brings
to mind the droll homespun pageantry
of Joan Littlewood's “Oh！ What a
Lovely War." The proceedings are
appropriately annotated with an
almost vaudevillian panache by
Takeharu Kunimoto as the Reciter.
Because Mr. Sondheim's lyrics are
calculatedly less intricate than usual
in "Pacific Overtures," seldom do
you feel you're missing something by
not hearing them sung in English.
Only with the elaborate patter num--
ber, " Please Hello. " in which admi-
rals of many nations descend in an
ambassadorial babel, does some-
thing seem to be lost, as it were, in
A couple of songs are short-
changed by lackluster stagings, in-
cluding the wonderful " Bowler Hat, "
in which Kayama metamorphoses
into a Western businessman. But the
climactic "Next," which portrays
Japan's rush through the 20th centu-
ry, has been dazzlingly expanded and
Both Japan's military aggression
in World War II and the bombing of
Hiroshima are chillingly represented
here （as they were not in the origi-
nal). And when the performers, who
have fallen to the floor after an atom-
ic eruption of light, rise to their feet
to dance robotically into the comput-
er age. the blessings of techological
progress seem unsettlingly dubious.
In reinterpreting an American mu-
sical about their own country, Mr.
Miyamoto and company have be-
stowed a great gift upon New York:
a chance to see muscle-flexing
Americans as aliens at a moment
when it is especially crucial for the
United States to understand how it is
"Pacific Overtures," of course, of-
fers only one perspective, which is
admittedly limited and distorted.
This is acknowledged in an exquisite-
ly performed version of “Someone in
a Tree," a ravishingly contemplative
song that presents different points of
view on the first meeting of Japanese
and American delegates.
The witnesses who give their testi-
mony here− a boy in a tree, a
warrior guarding the hut where the
meeting took place− can offer only
splinters of this historic moment.
"It's the fragment, not the day," they
sing. "It's the ripple, not the sea."
Vision is always only partial, the
song suggests; memory is always
imperfect. Still, fragments add up.
Those assembled in this fascinating
production add a welcome new di-
mension to across-cultural mosaic.