March 26, 2014
Right before I left Tokyo for Los Angeles, I saw a remarkable production of Tennessee Williams’ “In The Bar of a Tokyo Hotel, ” starring the J-Pop group AKB48. The band consists of 48 Japanese girls from the age of 15 to mid-20s. They have their own theater that is located in Akihabara, Tokyo. Doing a Tennessee Williams play is considered to be odd with respect to this group of young ladies performing it. On the other hand, they totally re-adopted it to their group as well as adding several songs to the production. The main singer for this performance, Mayu Watanabe, is twenty years old, yet had years of experience and she actually studied under the French musician and composer Pierre Boulez. He thought quite highly of the music she composed as a teenager. For some, her being a part of AKB48 strikes one as being subversive, but Watanabe is pretty much in the group as a singer and dancer.
Since Williams passed away some years ago, we will never know what he would have thought of AKB48’s version of “In The Bar of a Tokyo Hotel.” But we do know that he had a great admiration for Japanese culture and its writers. He met and knew Yukio Mishima, and actually wrote the play "In The Bar of a Tokyo Hotel" as a tribute to Mishima's memory. The original production took place in Manhattan in 1969 and ran for 29 performances. Even though it was considered to be a commercial failure, there were some fans of the work, and some see it as a very personal statement from Tennessee regarding his life and career. The main character is a painter who is struggling with his art in trying to find a new medium to express it, while staying in a hotel in Tokyo. Of course it ends badly, and the play’s reputation is almost cult-like in its acceptance to a very few group of people.
So what is amazing is that AKB48 did the initial Japanese production of this underrated work by Williams. Before I left Tokyo, I also purchased the soundtrack to this production which is spectacular on many levels. The great inventor of the British music hall, Fred Karno, who discovered Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel, would fit in perfectly with the AKB48 aesthetic, in that theater becomes the everyday life, but projected by visionaries.