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Asian Theatre Journal 21.1 (2004) 1-98

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The Three Hagi Sisters:
A Modern Japanese Play by Nagai Ai

Translated and introduced by Loren Edelson

Ever since the first Japanese production of Chekhov's Three Sisters at Tsukiji Shögekijö (Tsukiji Little Theatre) in 1925, numerous Japanese directors, including the world-renowned Suzuki Tadashi, have staged this intimate portrayal of life in prerevolutionary Russia. 1 (See Steiner 1997, 191-201; Berton et al. 1981.) Chekhov has been popular in Japan since the late nineteenth century—in fact, one survey lists him as the fourth most frequently translated foreign writer between 1868 and 1955 (Berton et al. 1981, 113). 2 In more recent years, playwrights such as Hirata Oriza and Iwamatsu Ryö have broken new ground, using Chekhov's works as a point of departure to write entirely "new" plays concerned with different people, places, and times. 3 Nagai Ai (b. 1951), one of Japan's most prominent playwrights, is the most recent addition [End Page 1] to this elite group. She brought her adaptation Hagi-ke no San Shimai (The Three Hagi Sisters) to Tokyo's Setagaya Paburikku Shiata (Setagaya Public Theatre) in November 2000 and again in November 2003. 4 Nagai's adaptation, grappling with current feminist concerns, exposes the gap between traditional expectations of men and women and liberation from these socially conditioned roles in a society strongly informed by a gendered division of labor, attitudes, and behavior.

Nagai has reworked Three Sisters into a contemporary Japanese context: all of the characters are Japanese, live in a Japanese provincial town, and contend with day-to-day issues in a post-sexual revolution world. The play has a decidedly Chekhovian feel. Each of the four acts is connected to a particular season, and at the end of the play there is a poignant moment of realization that nothing has really changed and the world, with all its organic elements and processes, will continue to carry on, outliving all its current human occupants. There are several clear parallels between Chekhov's and Nagai's respective plays, but the significance of Nagai's play lies in its differences: its geographical, temporal, and social transcontextualization. Indeed, most theatre critics writing about Nagai's play mentioned Chekhov's Three Sisters as the target text, but it was not a key point in their reviews; furthermore, at least one review did not mention Chekhov at all (Ebara 2000). Still, critic Yamazaki Showa began his remarks by stating, "At a glance, one recognizes that Three Hagi Sisters is an adaptation of Chekhov's Three Sisters," and Nagai herself freely acknowledges that her play is an adaptation (Yamazaki 2001). As for writing her "own Chekhov play," she commented: "I like Chekhov's Three Sisters very much, but I thought that the other characters were better developed than the three sisters, so that was a disappointment. I wrote Three Hagi Sisters in order to superimpose contemporary Japanese women onto the play" (Yomiuri Shinbun 2000; Nagai, pers. comm.).

As virtually every review of the play pointed out, Nagai's creative addition to Chekhov is in the form of "feminism," or feminizumu, the loanword that Nagai uses as an umbrella term for any old-fashioned beliefs that obstruct women's and men's equality. 5 Critics, delighted with Nagai's humorous spin on this topic, have emphasized that although there has been a steady increase in the number of Japanese female directors, playwrights, and theatre managers, only a handful have written about feminist issues for the stage. (See, in particular, Senda 2000.) Not concerned with depicting the changing Russian feudal order—a topic that would have been relevant in Japan around the turn of the century but not today—Nagai focuses squarely on issues of sexual identity and gender in Japan at the beginning of the twenty-first century. While Chekhov's Three Sisters is, among other things, inherently [End Page 2] about gender and the changing woman, Nagai foregrounds these issues in a way that would have been taboo in Chekhov's time...