This is the second work by Japanese playwright Shoji Kokami to be presented in London, following the somewhat impenetrable Trance which was staged at the Bush Theatre four years ago. This new piece is inspired by the rise in popularity of suicide pact websites in Japan. Kokami aims to explore the symptoms behind one of Japan’s most widespread social issues, but he does so in a curious blend of farce and tragedy that, in the end, feels rather naive and empty.
After having met on such a website, three individuals come together to discuss the last hours of their lives. Hello Kitty (Mark Rawlings) is a flamboyant closeted gay man with serious debt issues and a desire to die while having fun, which in this case involves a barbecue with a difference. Masa (Dan Ford) repeatedly claims to have escaped death in the Twin Towers and is on a mission to go down while saving the day as a human shield. Counsellor Kazumi (Abigail Boyd) has an agenda to stop these two men from committing suicide, yet is weighed down by her own baggage in the form of dead high-school pupil, Akio (Joe Morrow), who provides the most intriguing dramatic device in the piece.
The narrative is structured into scenes, each with its own curious headline marking out a particular dramatic moment, such as ‘Straddle me like a horse and squeeze’ or ‘If CNN shows up, we’re done on a global scale’. Kokami is determined to treat his subject with humour and a sense of the absurd- this is particularly evident in the way that most of the narrative resolutions are channelled into an amateur production of a Japanese fairytale about a Red and a Blue ogre to be performed by the human shields at the local nursery.
The production as a whole suffers from a vague quality from beginning to end which impacts on its exploration of the social condition. One of the main problems is the characters themselves, who are all categorized as either mentally ill or highly unstable individuals. This means from the onset Kokami closes down any opportunity for an audience to understand these potential suicide candidates, imposing what strikes me as a rather superficial analysis on the issues being examined. The other niggle is the age of these characters. This is a trend that is affecting a significant population of young people in Japan – and in light of this, Kokami’s surreal use of Japanese pop culture and folk stories felt apt – yet with all characters in some form of mid-life crisis, their games seem like rather perverse manifestations of their emotional baggage instead of a symptom of some deeper social malaise.
In this way, Kokami removes much of the dramatic potential of the piece and he seems oddly reluctant to dive into the possible motivations of the real protagonists of suicide pacts. It doesn’t help that the play is littered with clichés and heavy-handed characterisation, something particularly evident in the constant stream of gay jokes from Hello Kitty. The play doesn’t really penetrate Japanese contemporary culture and ultimately feels like a rather oblique treatment of a subject that merits more considered attention.