Good Show, Kaga-san

From 'Democracy': Takeshi Kaga as Prime Minister Willy Brandt and Masachiko Ichimura as Brandt's duplicitous aide Finally found an English-language review of the Tokyo production of the eloquent Michael Frayn drama “Democracy.” According to this Japan Times assessment, the gifted Takeshi Kaga, who stars as the charismatic, conflicted West German Prime Minister Willy Brandt, did not disappoint during the show’s runs at the Theatre 1010 and the Aoyama — and neither did his castmates.

The latest huge West End and Broadway success for English playwright, novelist and translator Michael Frayn — which premiered at the National Theatre in London in 2003, and opened last weekend in Tokyo — is a docu-drama set in the West Germany of the 1960s and ’70s, during a Cold War era in Europe unfamiliar to many in Japan. Willy Brandt won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1971 for his famous Ostpolitik, attempting to build bridges between East and West at the height of a period of distrust and division between the two Germanys.

Perhaps nervous about this information gap, and to reinforce the play’s appeal here, production company Horipro cast two of Japan’s longtime leading actors — Takeshi Kaga and Masachika Ichimura — as its co-stars. Kaga and Ichimura, however, are just the icing on a dramatic cake that’s provocative and of such universal personal and political interest as to suit the tastes of what will likely be near-full houses throughout this play’s extended Tokyo run and subsequent regional tour. …

.. [M]uch credit must … go to the English director Paul Miller, who has superbly polished Frayn’s gem here through intense work with his gifted, all-Japanese cast. Foremost among these, of course, are Kaga and Ichimura, though Takashi Fujiki (as SDP [Social Democratic Party] power broker Herbert Wehner) and Yoshimasa Kondo (as the chancellor’s head of intelligence services Horst Ehmke) both run them a close second in this memorable roduction. “Democracy” not only reinforces the dictum that “fact can be stranger than fiction,” but also that which maintains “one man’s meat is another man’s poison” — even though, as we are strongly reminded here, in real life, both very human men may be meat-eaters.

It may concern details of history distant from its Japanese audiences, but “Democracy” is still close to home. In its concern with “What is democracy?” and how to get along with one’s close but very different neighbors, it is a significant production to be staging here now — and one that will give all who see it plenty to chew on long after the last of its many curtain calls.

Unless Lady Luck smiles upon me — which doesn’t happen — I should not count on getting to Tokyo’s Le Teatre Ginza for the show’s next run, March 16-31, or to its subsequent dates in Aichi, Shiga, Niigata, and Osaka. I definitely will try to catch the Broadway version, however. No Kaga, but, hey, I’ll be lucky to get to New York. Now, if you can get to see one of the Nihon performances, I would recommend it — if you are well-versed in Japanese. Frayn’s plays tend to be quite wordy (do you remember his fantastic and fascinating Tony winning “Copenhagen?”), and “Democracy,” which covers cold-war politics, is no exception.

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