Ri Kōran, the major wartime (1931–45) play by Asari Keita, director and impresario of the Shiki Theatre Company, has enjoyed a continuous run in Shiki’s member theatres across Japan and overseas since its 1991 Tokyo premiere. An adaptation of the autobiography Ri Kōran: watashi no hansei (Ri Kōran: Half my life), this musical dramatizes the life of actress and singer Ri Kōran (also known as Yamaguchi Yoshiko [1920–]). Attending the work twenty years after its first performance, I wondered how collective memoirs depicting realism would be represented onstage.
Ri’s compelling story of changing identities under turbulent historical conditions has been adapted into television dramas and books. Born in Manchuria to Japanese parents, she adopted her Chinese stage name Ri Kōran (Li Xianglan in Mandarin) for her debut in the Manchuria Film Association’s 1938 film Honeymoon Express. From the late 1930s to the mid-’40s, she attained the highest celebrity status, becoming a popular film and theatre icon in both Japan and China. Through her films based in Manchuria and Tokyo, Ri portrayed a “good Chinese” who advocated Japan leading Asia toward independence from Western imperialism. Although her career suffered a minor setback after her Japanese nationality came to light following World War II, she continued to make films and appeared on television shows throughout the 1950s and ’60s, eventually transitioning to politics in the ’70s.
As an original Japanese theatrical creation, Ri Kōran marks a major thematic departure from previous stagings of American scripts under Asari’s direction, including Disney stories, Hollywood films, and Broadway musicals. The performance opens with a military trial in Shanghai, where Ri (played by Nomura Ryōko) is accused of betraying the Chinese nation in collaboration with the Japanese empire. After the helpless Ri is subjected to considerable verbal abuse, the narrative flashes back to her childhood. Watching these scenes of Ri’s peaceful days with her Chinese and Japanese friends made me feel that I was witnessing the calm before the storm; indeed, the narrative drastically shifts in the second half of act 1, bringing us to the height of Sino-Japanese tensions, replete with massacres and guerrilla warfare. The end of act 2 takes us back to the trial, where the judge declares Ri not guilty of treason and collaboration with the Japanese. In the finale, performers at court sing together in chorus, symbolizing mutual forgiveness and reconciliation between the two nations.
Ri Kōran’s portrayal of a dark era was effectively supported by generally gloomy music, set decoration, and lighting, with the exception of a play-within-a-play scene that portrayed Ri’s performance at Japan’s Nichigeki Theatre, supported by several dancers in qipao (a traditional form-fitting Chinese dress). In addition, I am sure older audiences must [End Page 274] have felt nostalgic when Nomura, as Ri, sang the enduringly popular original Chinese hit songs “Heri jun zailai” (When will you return) and “Ye lai xiang” (The evening primrose), both of which Ri recorded during and after the war years. Aside from these dazzling interludes, the production evinced a striking absence of spectacle.
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In comparison with Shiki’s standard fare, such as The Lion King, The Sound of Music, and Wicked, this relative lack of pageantry could well have challenged the production’s commercial viability. However, as Asari himself had experienced the nightmare of war, he might have wished to present a more serious tale. Thematic songs with a grave tone were sung by Kawashima Yoshiko (played by Higuchi Asami), the Manchu princess adopted by Japanese parents. Kawashima, who often cross-dressed as a male, had a brief friendship with Ri, and the staging of her character was facilitated by similarities not only in the characters’ Japanese forenames, but also in their dual identities in terms of gender and nationality. Narrated by Kawashima, Ri Kōran covers the establishment of Manchukuo, the rise of...