Gateway Theatre, Studio B
6500 Gilbert Rd., Richmond
Through May 14

It’s hard to imagine a more timely play than this.

As we commemorate the 60th anniversary of the allied victory in Europe, as Chinese and Japanese clash over Japan’s attitudes towards its wartime behaviour, as preparations continue for Saddam Hussein’s trial and American commanders are exonerated of any responsibility for events at Abu Graibh, Vancouver playwright and actor Hiro Kanagawa tells the story of one of the first modern war crimes trials.

Through Kanagawa’s revisionist lens we get a fascinating new angle on the horrors and complexities of war, and a deeper understanding of why “military justice” is a classic oxymoron.

The trial of Japanese General Tomoyuki Yamashita, nicknamed “Tiger of Malaya” for his defeat of the British at Singapore, pre-dated Nuremberg. On December 7, 1945, the anniversary of Pearl Harbor, he was found guilty by an American military tribunal of permitting soldiers under his command to commit atrocities during the battle for Manila, during which 100,000 Filipino civilians died. A few months later he was hanged.

The play narrows its focus to Yamashita, played with fierce dignity by Kanagawa himself, and his American defence team: ferocious Southern redneck Colonel Hilroy (William Macdonald in a performance worthy of Jack Nicholson), liberal Jewish Captain Lederman (a delightful Alex Ferguson, providing earnest conviction, righteous anger and welcome comic relief), and Japanese-American translator Daisy Okamura (a beautifully conflicted Maiko Bae Yamamoto).

Lest we forget the real casualties in this battle between victors and vanquished, a Filipina named Rosario visits Yamashita in his nightmares. Unsentimentally voicing the anguish of the war‘s civilian victims, especially its women, Donna Soares powerfully portrays a witness who never testifies at the trial but presents the most damning evidence of all.

A key character in the drama is American General Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander of Allied forces in the Pacific, who never appears on stage. From the beginning it’s clear that Yamashita’s is to be a show trial, carefully choreographed by MacArthur for his own glory. Even the heavy civilian death toll in the battle for Manila is blamed as much on MacArthur’s tactics as on Yamashita’s. No one gets out of here with clean hands.

Playwright Kanagawa goes so far out of his way to reveal each character’s complex, equivocal humanity that it sometimes looks like dramatic convenience. Hilroy, apparently a repulsive racist, turns out in his own gruff way to be a good attorney and a great guy. The Jewish defence lawyer and Nisei translator both have compromised positions to negotiate. And Yamashita wrestles with so many layers of guilt and innocence, goodness, responsibility and fallibility that he seems almost Shakespearean.

To Kanagawa’s credit, and director Rachel Ditor’s, these contrivances never distract us from the important issues at the heart of this audacious play.

Jerry Wasserman

last updated: Sunday, May 8, 2005 9:09 PM
website design by Linda Fenton Malloy