A whale of a dramatic project

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A whale of a dramatic project

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BUSAN ― On Sept. 1, in a rehearsal room of Busan Cultural Center, 11 actors from Korea and Japan sat in chairs arranged in a semi-circle and practiced their lines. Linguistic chaos reigned: five Korean actors read in Korean, five Japanese actors in Japanese, and one Korean actress read some things in Korean and some in Japanese.
Finally, one of the two directors (one Japanese and one Korean) who along with the playwright sat in front of the actors stopped them. Then the interpreter, who was sitting between the two directors, swung into action. The directors discussed the nuances of the lines and how to express them. They weren’t arguing, but the atmosphere was tense, nonetheless. The Korean playwright stepped into the conversation, explaining his intentions for the scene.
So went the second day of rehearsals for the Korean and Japanese actors in the stage drama “Whale Island,” that will start its run in Korea and Japan on Sept. 21.
Hong Won-ki, the playwright, wrote the drama, at the request of Shinagawa Yoshimasa, the Japanese director. Mr. Shinagawa, the playwright and director of Tokyo Gingado, asked Mr. Hong to write a story for a Korea-Japan joint performance that deals with environmental issues specifically related to whales. Mr. Hong rose to fame in Japan with an earlier drama, “King Abby.” “These days, the environment is a key issue,” Mr. Shinagawa said.
“I’ve also written a drama for a Japanese radio program, about a whale and a Japanese family in 2003,” he added.
Mr. Shinagawa is from Yamaguchi prefecture; the region, Omijima, he said, has a number of myths related to whales. “Also, a region in Japan performs rites for baby whales, because they believe anyone who kills a baby whale will see divine retribution.”
Japan’s whaling industry is the target of international condemnation. While Japan insists it catches whales for research purposes, international environmental organization Greenpeace says Japan’s whaling is putting the animals’ future in danger. But Japan, a member of the International Whaling Commission, insists that commercial whaling be allowed. In Japan, whale meat is a delicacy. According to one survey, about 80 percent of Japanese have eaten whale meat at least once.
“Whales are family oriented. It’s known that a mother whale cares for its baby much like a human mother does,” said Son Ki-ryong, the Korean director, and chief director of Busan Metropolitan Theatre Company. “A drama about whales can also broach the family issue.”
But “Whale Island” isn’t entirely about the issue. The story is about an island that appears suddenly between the West Tribe (played by the Koreans) and the East Tribe (played by the Japanese). The two tribes name the island “Mumyeong,” Korean for “no name,” in order to prevent any conflicts. They also agree to ban anyone from entering the island. But, of course, five people from the West and five from the East sneak their way onto the island. The Westerners are looking for healthy food, while the Easterners are looking for delicacies. The two tribes meet on the island and at first come into conflict, saying that they should push the other side off the island.
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As it turns out, the island is actually a whale. To make things more complicated, Hideo, a boy from the East tribe, falls in love with Yeon, a girl from the West. But there’s a catch regarding a woman, the wife of a man who killed a whale and its baby, but who is also the mother of the kids.
“A drama can plant a seed that changes society, but it can’t change it immediately,” Mr. Hong said, explaining why he didn’t make the play a didactic lesson on environmentalism. “But also, stage dramas aren’t supposed to wrap things up neatly.”
The drama’s production is sponsored by the Japanese Agency for Cultural Affairs and the Busan metropolitan city government.
Asked if he meant the play to involve the controversy over Dokdo islets, which are claimed by both Korea and Japan, Mr. Hong said no. “It could be any conflict between two nations that share a sea, such as Norway and Sweden,” he said. “Also, it’s not about the conflict between the East and the West. The conflict is only a very small part of the whole drama. It’s more like a fantasy drama, very comic and humorous.”
Working with actors from another country can be difficult, Mr. Shinagawa said, particularly due to the language barrier. “The translation of the play is generally good. But if we go into detail, some things don’t make sense in Japanese and we can’t express the feeling [of the dialogue]. Frankly, I didn’t expect this kind of trouble,” he said, laughing.
One of the Japanese actors was Inagaki Syozo, born in 1928. With six decades of experience under his belt, he’s by far the most experienced of the actors in the production. Adding that it’s usual in Japan for those his age to stay on stage, he said, “I kept acting because there were good plays. But I still feel that I need to improve.”
“I think Korean actors are good at bringing emotions out and the language is dramatic,” he added.
This will be his second performance in Korea. He said that he walks for about 30 minutes to 1 hour a day to maintain his health.
On one day, the actors had to read the script for eight hours before it made sense to them.
“It’s Japanese style. They have to fully understand every single line before they start acting. Also, there must be a reason for any single action,” said Na Ja-myung, a Korean actress who has performed in Japan. In this performance she plays Haeryeong, the goddess of the sea, speaking in both Korean and Japanese. She also sings seven to eight songs in the play; Han Jae-kwon, who was the musical director of films “Hanbando” and “Silmido,” composed the songs for her role. The singer Lee An, who sang the theme music of “Daejanggeum” or “Jewel in the Palace,” is her alternate.
The show will have subtitles in Korea for the Japanese lines and Japan for the Korean dialogue.


by Park Sung-ha

“Whale Island” will be performed from Sept. 21 to Sept. 24 at the Busan Cultural Center at 7:30 p.m. weekdays, 4 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. on Saturday and 4 p.m. on Sunday. Tickets cost 10,000 won ($11) to 16,000 won. Call (051) 607-6136.
From Sept. 28 to Oct. 1, it will be staged at the National Theater of Korea, central Seoul, at 8 p.m. on weekdays, 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. on Saturday and 3 p.m. on Sunday. Tickets cost 15,000 won to 30,000 won. Call (02) 2285-6685.
They will also perform in Japan from Oct. 19 to Nov. 2, visiting Tokyo, Ube, Yamaguchi, Iwakuni, Shimonoseki, and Fukuoka.

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