Performed entirely in Japanese with English subtitles, symbolism
and fun were key elements in director Den Fujita’s John
Manjiro – The Dawning of Modern Japan, which was presented
in part by Gekidan Haisho and the Japanese Cultural Center
Shayna Coleon, the public relations director at JCCH, said
the play ran in three states: Massachusetts, New York, and
the last stop on the tour. “Gekidan Haisho decided to have
the play in places that played a really big role in Manjiro’s
travels,” Coleon said.
Fujita said in the program that he hoped the play conveyed
how Japan modernized from opening its doors to American culture.
The stage doubled as the deck of Manjiro’s fishing boat
and the underside of a bridge in an unidentified Japanese city.
Cast members, with unique names like Thin Makeup and The Boss,
narrated the story, blending history and humor as a group of
outcasts tried to groom a Manjiro lookalike named Rickshaw Boy
to impersonate Manjiro and claim a huge reward the Japanese government
has offered to anyone who can bring them the man who knows the “American” ways.
The outcasts wonder why is the government searching for Manjiro?
To kill him? To absorb his knowledge? They ponder this and their
money-making scheme as the
scenes bounce back and forth between the story of Manjiro’s ship-board
journey to America and beneath the bridge where they dodge the Japanese spy hunting
for anyone who opposes the “new” government.
Fujita’s play had lots of amusing touches, including large braided straw
wigs to depict “blond Americans,” American whaling songs sung in
a “It’s a Small World After All,” head-swaying tone, and interjecting
zeyo, which roughly translates into English as “by gum,”into Manjiro’s
The performance’s climax comes when an older man, Wanderer, happens to
be passing under the bridge and decides to tell the outcasts exactly who Manjiro
really is. By this time, five posters with different images of Manjiro have circulated
around the country. Only one faintly resembles Rickshaw Boy, but The Boss is
determined to get the reward and fool the new government that has deeply divided
The story delves deeper into Manjiro’s experiences and accomplishments
in the states, including his excelling in English, algebra, and shipbuilding,
his role as first mate of a whaling ship, and his going to California during
the Gold Rush. It comes full circle when Manjiro returns home to Japan.
Wanderer proposes that maybe Manjiro can’t be found because he wants to
avoid everyone and is fed up with Japan because of all the chaos that accompanied
the forming of the new government. The Boss and outcasts simply shrug it off,
thinking Wanderer has no idea of what’s going on.
With that, Wanderer says goodbye and leaves the group under
The spy winds up killing two outcasts in a stunning sword battle,
leaving several women weeping as they watch the bodies get
Immediately thereafter, one of the outcasts runs to The Boss
with yet another
sketch of Manjiro.
The play closes with a hilarious “no way” ending, as each outcast
looks dumbfounded at the sketch and the subtitle screen reads “Could it
Before the lights dimmed, they showed the sketch to the audience
faces, and it was a composite drawing of Wanderer.
Fujita’s play reflected the ups and downs and struggles and victories of
150 years of relations between Japan and the United States and fashioned these
into a seamless dramatic comedy.
The symbolic bridge used to recreate Manjiro’s travels ultimately depicts
the coming together of two countries who, despite past differences, are today
building a relationship that many hope will continue for another 150 years.