Shitamachi Jyoucho

Representations of Japanese Society as a Whole in Oriza Hirata’s 上野動物園再々々襲撃 (Attacking Ueno Zoo for the Fourth Time).

Themes of mortality, lost youth, community, and tradition run strong in Oriza Hirata’s contemporary colloquial play Ueno Dobutsuen Sai-sai-sai Shugeki (Attacking Ueno Zoo for the Fourth Time.) The stage of the play is stationary and serves as a backdrop of so a called “normality” in which a group of individuals can comfortably interact and converse without the added dramatics of outside challenge. This allows for simple conversation to take the spotlight and draws the audience closer to each character, not because of how he is tested by challenge in the present, but through a slow revealing of his past. Hirata utilizes this hyper-realistic style in order to capture the traditional spirit of Japanese community—or shitamachi jyoucho—as well as to represent Japanese society as a whole. Yet the play also shows that this connection is slowly dying with the old generations, and might only be allowed to survive through stories of shared experience and that it is the duty of the old guard to pass on their memories to future generations through the tradition of storytelling.

The theme of community is established at the start of Ueno Dobutsuen when the young waitress Kayama informs her regular customer Nakajima that the café owner is out attending Masumoto’s funeral. When Nakajima asks why especially it is that her boss felt the need to attend, Kayama’s response 「だって、ご近所ですからね」indicates that as members of the community they all share a bond with Masumoto. 「ま、それだけか。」Nakajima replies.「はい、」Kayama’s affirmation shows that it does not matter if the two were especially close, in fact, Tsugao and Masumoto’s relationship may have been merely that of a shop owner and his customer, but they had been connected by something much deeper—a sense of shitamachi jyoucho. One can thus conclude that it is Tsugao’s responsibility as a member of a cohesive group identity to pay respects to the deceased, even though they may not have shared a personal relationship.

In a lighthearted attempt at humor, Nakajima initially brings up this concept of shitamachi jyoucho. The play is appropriately set in Shitamachi itself, the heart and soul of traditional Edo, a setting which serves to represent the everyday experience of the common man by depicting a community-oriented atmosphere of traditional neighborhood dwellers, or in this case, old school friends of working-class upbringing. The unchanging normalness of the setting—bar stools and a few tables at a husband and wife owned café—inspires comfortability and grants the audience unfettered access into what would, in reality, be a closed community. Theme songs, inside jokes, and teasing bring a lively atmosphere and allow both the characters and the audience to escape from the loneliness of adulthood into the splendorous nostalgia of childhood adventures and togetherness.

The audience is continuously cognizant, however, of the message of mortality (established through the pretext of Masumoto’s funeral) and it slowly becomes apparent that the character’s precious and romanticized past stands in stark contrast to their gloomy present and ominous future. This vein of sobriety continues to run throughout Ueno Dobutsuen, and serves to tether both characters and audience to true time-space as the friends embark on vibrant tales of past adventures. As they sing snippets of Tsuki no Sabaku, the theme song of their childhood, they are allowed a temporary reprieve from this reality; first and foremost the sad truth that their reunion has only been made possible by the death of a friend.

In the decades that had passed since the middle school classmates last met, many had led lives of regret and suffering. Kitamoto lies to her classmates about participating in a school field trip, Tadao attempts to hide his shameful divorce and subsequent estrangement of his children, Fujisaki battles cancer, all have seen the death of a close friend or loved one. Their ties to community thus wholly spring from their past; a past—and an identity—without which they are lost. Their recounting of tales thus allows each access to the safety of a cohesive group and the spirit of shitamachi, and their identity as a Japanese citizen is able to become validated through the forming of traditions. Their ties to a lost past overcome the loneliness of the lives they lived as individuals in a modernizing world.

The theme of lost past immediately calls to mind both Soseki Natsumi’s My Individualism and, in a slightly more abstract manner, Tanizaki Jun’ichiro’s love letter to aesthetics of traditional Japan, In Praise of Shadows. Much like these essays on Japanese identity and its struggle to survive in the face of modernization, Uneo Dobutsuen is an ode to a glorious, all but lost past of cohesion and belonging. In the play, time is against the classmates. It is clear that as they age and die one by one, so too will their memories. This is best illustrated in the second act when the group first discusses Fujisaki’s cancer. With the line「新聞の死亡記事とか見ても、多いもん、同い年くらいが、」Kitamoto illuminates the shared experience of an entire generation, and hints at its inevitable demise.

Kayama’s presence in the story, however, brings a ray of hope to the fading memory of the older generation. Because their story remains in the past it is their responsibility as members of the old community to pass on their experience and connection through the tradition of storytelling. The classmates thus share with her their songs and their tales at every opportunity. She wonders about the films they like and inquires about the old, quirky songs they sing. And, perhaps due to the loss of her father, Kayama even comes to share a little of her own self.  In a brief conversation with Kitamoto for example, Kayama admits, 「トリマーになりたくて…ま、頑張らないと、」 a statement which reflects the carefree indecision of youth that is not yet encumbered by the pressures time. The statement both strangely compliments and contrasts Fujisaki’s powerful declaration in the final scene, 「ない。なんにもない。」 His refusal to think about “growing up,” or rather, to dream about leaving the welcoming inclusiveness of this ephemeral community is, to him, overbearing.

In the final scene Kayama is made to ride the camel beside Kitamoto, the group’s declared Queen, in a ritualistic and metaphorical passing of the torch. She becomes a rightful member of their community and will henceforth be responsible for upholding and passing on their shared traditions. Her complete acceptance into the classmate’s group essentially breathes new life into their traditions, bestowing upon them greater longevity.

When watching and reading the Ueno Dobutsuen, one feels as if carrying the weight of a waning sun. Each aging character in the play, without his identity as a member of the group, is nothing but burdened by a lifetime of melancholy. But as the friends recount stories of their school days, they are able to keep the tradition of their shared past alive and to escape the harsh realities of the present. They are connected both in stories of youth and in their fate as mortal humans. And by singing and recounting tales, The group as a whole is thus able to succeed in simultaneously creating their own communal traditions and strengthening their sense of shitamachi jyoucho on to future generations. What Ueno Dobutsuen ultimately concludes then, it that the core identity of the Japanese nation lies in the bonds of the community. Moreover, the only way in which to truly preserve traditions of the past—and subsequently the identity of the entire nation—is through memory, and it is each man’s duty as a part of that identity to pass on the soul of shitamachi to future generations.


© 2016 Devon Lois Duncan. All rights reserved.

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