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Hana Ichimomme

nytheatre.com review by Nancy Kim
July 2, 2008

Midway through the solo performance Hana Ichimomme, actor Seiko Tano, in one of her characters' voices, utters simply in Japanese: "This is war. This is war, isn't it?" This sentiment neatly and chillingly sums up the tale told in this production.

As described in the program notes, "Hana Ichimomme" is a well-known children's song in Japan. The lyrics are benignly translated as: "If I win, I'm happy, Hana Ichimomme.... If I lose, it's frustrating, Hana Ichimomme." At the same time, hana refers to girl and ichimomme means to sell for a small price. Therefore, it is suggested that the song may refer to child trafficking. As it's sung to a simple chant-like melody throughout the performance, it brings to mind children's songs more familiar to Western ears such as "London Bridge is Falling Down" and "Ring Around the Rosie," both songs that sound playful and innocent while referring to war and bubonic plague respectively.

The song is a good anchor to Ken Miyamato's play Hana Ichimomme, which was written in 1982. It is spoken in Japanese with English supertitles displayed from a projector onto the back of the stage, and features the lovely Seiko Tano in an elegant and understated performance that takes us on a journey which starts on the Japanese island of Shikoku and moves to Manchuria before returning back to the Buddhist holy ground in Shikoku.

In this tale, Tano portrays is a woman raising her small young family in a Japanese occupied section of Manchuria. At the close of World War II, Japan has been defeated and Soviet troops pass through to invade and occupy Manchuria. At this time, about one million Japanese people have been residing in Manchuria as regular civilians. Without the protection of the Japanese government, these civilians must fend for themselves or flee back to Japan on their own. Tano's character makes this trek with her two young children with the other villagers and describes the harrowing and brutal atrocities along the way. When finally reaching the makeshift port town where thousands of other Japanese await their return to their homeland, Tano describes the daily limbo of these desperate lives. When one of her children falls ill, the character must make one of the most unimaginable decisions to face a mother. In turn, the song "Hana Ichimomme" reveals itself in this different context: the small price of those affected by war.

Unlike many solo performances I have seen where the performer takes the opportunity to showcase all her talents to transform into many different characters to dizzying effect, what is most effective in Tano's performance is her straightforward storytelling which provides much of the tension. (Tano is also listed as co-director along with Tetsuya Chiba.) And only a confident performer such as Tano could take many of the silent and still moments and imbue them with such emotional resonance. There is live musical accompaniment with Nozimi Terao at the piano and Yumi Kurosawa playing the koto, a traditional Japanese stringed instrument. And while serving mostly as a functional aspect in the production, the supertitles add an artistic element that seems to score the Japanese with a translation spare in its words but undeniably brutal in what is being conveyed.