Writer: Haruna Lee
Director: Aya Ogawa
Reviewer: Alithea Howes
Suicide Forest takes such a sharp turn in the middle that at first blush it feels like two disparate plays stitched together. But these distinct parts feed and inform each other so well that a second glance shows how inextricably linked they are. This is, of course, perfect for a play about Japanese American identity.
The play is not so much set in Japan, as it is set in an American idea of Japan; like a world created from “WTF Japan” posts. It is loud, fast, bright, like a candy colored cartoon show, with bizarre fetishistic proclivities often bubbling up from below. The gorgeous set by Jian Jung reads like the set of children’s show in hell: two walls with bold irregular stripes in varying shades of pink, black, and red. The red stripes all end in a teardrop shape, suggesting dripping blood. The show swings from delightfully weird to deeply unsettling as it careens through every modern Japanese stereotype one can name. Wacky game shows? They got ’em. Karaoke? Definitely. Sexual humiliation? In spades.
With stylized physicality and acting, the Japanese-heritage cast sinks their teeth into these stereotypes with an almost vicious glee. Eddy Toru Ohno’s character, though one of the show’s protagonists, is only known as Salaryman. With his friend (Keizo Kaji) he struggles to define and embody the ideal or Japanese masculinity, a concept his friend connects with much more easily than he.
Salaryman’s daughters, (Ako and Dawn Akemi Saito) stand out as nightmare Lolita twins, at once materialistic, hyper-sexualized, and infantilized. Brilliant touches by costumer Alice Tavener make their Lolita outfits just wrong enough to be grating to fans of the style.
Their friend and the other protagonist, is Azusa (Haruna Lee) a passive and shy “good girl” in textbook schoolgirl costume. In her first scene, she is silent and immobile as a sex doll.
The action of the first half of the play is fueled by Salaryman’s desperation to live up to his stereotype, and Azusa’s struggle to break out of hers. The show’s over-the-top style highlights the stark vulnerability of Azusa when she begins to slip into real emotion.The more Azusa strives to gain agency, the more the show devolves into chaos. Finally the protagonists’ only respite is to flee to the suicide forest (which is exactly what it sounds like.)
Believe it or not, this is only the halfway point. The reality of the show breaks to become a completely different experience; one which is vulnerable, honest, heartfelt, and tender. Azusa achieves agency, not just transcending stereotypes, but transcending the play itself. She becomes Haruna Lee, both the actor who plays Azusa and the writer of the play. Haruna appears before us, completely human, conflicted and complex. They show us their fear, their shame, their frustration at not fully connecting to either culture they’ve been raised in, the stereotypes they’ve felt trapped in. The director describes the play as, “Looking into Haruna’s body and then turning it inside out.” The description could not be more apt.
By striking that deep into their heart, Haruna Lee reaches into their viewers heart as well. Despite having no personal connection to Japanese culture or the experience of being multiracial, this reviewer was deeply moved.
Runs until 15 March 2020 | Photo Credit: Richard Termine