Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Migration and identity issues abound in Retire-Men

The cast of Retire-Men
Photo by Mariko Okeda

More than just the plight of Japanese retirees settling in Thailand and the Philippines, issues regarding migration and identity were also raised in Retire-Men, a production by the theater company RINKOGUN staged recently at the Cultural Center of the Philippines with the support of the Japan Foundation, Manila.

Written by Yayoi Shimizu and directed by Yoji Sakate and Nikorn Sae Tang, Retire-Men is a collaborative work between Japan, the Philippines and Thailand.

From the start, the play led me to believe from the introduction by the masked and black clad quartet of Narumol Thammapruksa and Nikorn Sae Tang from Thailand, and Mailes Kanapi and Marj Lorico from the Philippines, along with the androgynous Jun (Shoko Munakata) of the ominous threat posed by these “ritaiamen”. So when the trio of these retirees, Kurobe (Tenshi Kamogawa), Yamamoto (Kenjiro Kawanaka), and Tasuku (Tsunekazu Inokuma), made their comic entrance, complete with song and dance accompanied by a two woman band, the silliness of the scene caught me by surprise.

The humorous play touched upon many themes starting from the stereotypical image of these Japanese men forming fleeting relationships with locals, especially younger females like Kurobe with Nock (Thammapruksa). But in the case of Yamamoto, Thailand gave him the freedom to deal with his sexuality and has cavorted with tomboys and who knows whichever gender was out there.

But it showed that it was not all fun and games with these men as some of them get conned by locals and an increasing number commit suicide by jumping off platforms into incoming trains. The sense of them being alone in a world far away from home was highlighted by the discovery of dead bodies in their rooms only days after and with no one coming forth to claim their bodies at the morgue.

As these Japanese are migrants, migration issues relevant to South East Asian countries were also touched upon. Filipinos like Teresa (Kanapi) migrate overseas to find better paying jobs so they can send money to their families back home. Migrant workers also affect the labor force in Thailand.

Disability issues were also tackled in the play Jay (Sae Tang), a wheelchair bound Thai, formed a bond with retiree Tasuku, in rendering services to other retirees but it felt to me that this stemmed out from a desire to be useful in society regardless of their handicap rather than a genuine concern for the retirees.

But one of the most resonating themes in Retire-Men was the concept of identity. Not only once did the Retire-Men express their desire to be free, not just of the rigid Japanese society, but also of their Japanese identity. And they find their true selves in the laidback environment of Thailand and the Philippines.

Gender issues were also tackled as one of the central characters, the androgynous Jun, presents himself as a male and, just like Yamamoto, looked very delighted in the company of the tomboys in Thailand.

But the most striking dilemma about identity is felt by the Japanese-Filipino children. Those who are in Japan like Jun and Masaru (Naofumi Takeyama) are looked down upon and never felt fully Japanese while those who grew up in the Philippines, like Mona (Lorico), feel a void and hope that by becoming fully Japanese and going to Japan will help them find what’s missing in their lives.

With the dialogue spoken in four languages (English, Japanese, Filipino, and Thai) shifting from one to another other, I had to be quick in reading the translation projected on the wall while still making sure  to see the action in front.

I was surprised to see how many layers this play had. The seemingly harmless elderly Japanese men hoping to spend their final years in South East Asia has them shaking and stirring their environment and surroundings instead. And it’s this exploration of the issues in Retire-Men stemming out from the themes of gender, care, and barriers, according to playwright Shimizu is what made this material relevant in this day and age.

Retire-Men continues its tour with performances in Chiang Mai (February 2-4) and in Bangkok (February 8-10), Thailand.

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