The Face of Jizo
“The Face of Jizo” is a Japanese play by Hisashi Inoue (1994) in a version by Australian translator Roger Pulvers. The action takes place in Hiroshima in 1948, three years after the city was levelled by an atomic bomb. The story revolves around a daughter and survivor Mitsue - a young librarian - and the special relationship she shares with her father, Takezo. Having lost friends and family in the war, he is the only person with whom she can openly talk. What happened to this father and daughter in the moments after the blast form the themes of this funny and deeply moving drama. Takezo’s wish for his daughter’s anguish to be acquitted from her survivor guilt drives the narrative.
It's rare for us to see a play that explores the destruction of Hiroshima and its aftermath from a Japanese point of view. This engrossing drama presented by a stellar team of creatives. Mayu Iwasaki playing daughter Mitsue is the beating heart of the production and brings enormous emotion, grace, and charisma to this central role. She creates a detailed world both inside her flat where the action takes place; her workplace, the library; and the horrors of the aftereffects of the bomb. There is a sense of time slowing down in this space as action, image and relationship are given weight as the story unfolds. It is a pleasure to watch. One small scene where Mitsue rehearses a puppet show for the children at the library is a delight and highlights Mayu Iwasaki’s considerable skill in manipulating objects and a great example of the care taken in every aspect of this production.
Shingo Usami plays father Takezo with his trademark warmth and humour. Usami also co-directs with David Lynch, and they combine the art of Japanese and Australian aesthetics and storytelling. Thankfully they get out of the way of this powerful play and let it do its work without needless embellishment. Me-Lee Hay, composer, provides a rich and haunting piece of music which is used sparingly, appropriately. Sound designer Zachary Saric isn’t encouraged to provide bomb-like sounds or eerie post war underscore. The sound world is – like other aspects of the production – elegant. Tobhiyah Stone Feller (designer) creates a post war Japanese interior with elevated tatami mat covered platform and kitchenette. The objects sit ingeniously on the stage, and we feel the space breath with the drama. Mat Cox (Lighting Design) brings his refined restraint to the space and with is artistry reminds us that often less is more. Respect!
What or who is the Jiso of the title? The Jiso is a small stone Buddhist statue and if you haven’t been to Japan, you may have seen one in a Japanese film such as the Studio Ghibli’s “Tonari no Totoro”. The primary role of Jizo is to protect children, and the souls of unborn babies. The Jizo appears to protect these children from devils and hide them in his clothing from the evil spirits. Jizo looks after them as a guardian on behalf of their parents. To say anything more would be to reveal the perfect theatrical twist of the story. No spoilers here!
The play has a unique structure with a coda or resolution to the storytelling. Just another reason to check out this understated offering at the Old Fitz this month.
With the 78th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki having just passed, the relevance of this play cannot be understated, especially as world history is on the brink of repeating itself with the ever-present threat of escalating warfare.