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Telling stories Japanese-style

Published Mar 26, 2013


Jemma Kahn spent a year teaching English in Japan, discovering an until then unacknowledged appreciation for what she now thinks of as her South African-ness.

Trying to fit into a very different way of life, she found herself apologising a lot for not under- standing or being able to express herself well enough in Japanese, and she never really got over the culture shock of a homogenous society when she was used to a multi-cultural way of life.

“As South Africans we are very sensitive to stepping on others’ toes and we’re apologists,” said Khan.

“Maybe I had erred on the side of being over-cautious, because it’s a very ritualised society. Japan shut itself off for 2 000 years and developed this incredibly rich culture, but it means everything is looking inward.

“They adopt a lot from other cultures, but it’s always from their way of looking at it.

“Which is what I think is quite nice about the show, because we’ve done the opposite,” grins Kahn in an interview at the Alexander Bar in Cape Town.

The show she is talking about is The Epicene Butcher and Other Stories for Consenting Adults, her version of kamishibai, which is one of the positive experiences she took out of her two-year stint in rural Japan. She learned about the art form by accompanying kamishibai veteran Roukda Genji on his travels.

“Somehow we made kamishibai, my Japanese was awful and his English was non-existent.”

Kamishibai is basically picture-box theatre and for Epicene Butcher, Kahn (with the help of the silent if rather sardonic, sweet-bearing character Chalk Girl) tells various stories which draw on diverse drawing styles.

Her performance of the Nelson Mandela story draws a lot on Genji’s style: “The size of the performance I learned from him. You can hear it in other things, when you hear someone like Helen Mirren narrate a story, the size of the vocal performance is massive because that’s all you’ve got.

“This show is the most fantastic opportunity for me to just blow my range completely. (Scriptwriter) Gwydion Beynon writes to my strengths. People think that it’s almost magical, the span, but it’s been very carefully curated to do exactly what I can do.”

While Japanese children grow up on kamishibai, it is largely unknown to western society when compared to high-art genres such as kabuki or noh, and Kahn immediately saw the potential in the highly visual art form.

“We’ve taken their culture and it’s always been something that (director) John (Trengove) and Gwydion thought about, that we never want to become prejudiced.

“I didn’t feel any guilt, because the way they cannibalise other cultures is quite shameless, so I thought a shameless adoption would be OK.

“And then we added the Fukushima story to humanise it.”

She is referring to a no-words, storyboards-only tale about one family’s experience of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, which is serious in a different way to the black and white ink drawings of The Spider’s Thread, which is a morality tale featuring the Buddha.

Joburg-born Kahn initially studied fine arts at Wits, but segued into drama and she’s worked on theatre design (most notably on Helen Iskander’s Planet B) more than acting (she was in Jane Taylor’s After Cardenio in 2011). This helped a lot when she started drawing storyboards for the show and when she and Beynon conceptualised the production.

Like most National Arts Festival Fringe projects, they pitched on the potential, rather than a finished product (which was first performed just before the NAF in June).

They hit on the idea of using a cute girl with big eyes on the poster: “If you look at the eyes you get locked and I just drew her very quickly. She’s been great, so we’re keeping her.

“The potential was manga, sex, titillation, cute… and I think the show’s now grown beyond that.”

Not only did their show name stand out for being one of the longest on the Fringe for that year (nine words versus several one-word titles), but word of mouth quickly spread and they were soon playing to sold-out houses.

Picking up a Silver Ovation Award, she moved on to the Fringe Amsterdam Festival, where they won Critics’ Choice and Best Foreign Production awards and they picked up Audience Favourite and Best Original Script at the Musho Festival in Durban.

She was in Cape Town at the intimate Alexander Bar Theatre in December, but now the show moves to the Market Theatre. Since the show is predicated on the storyboards, which can’t be properly viewed beyond eight metres away, she’s philosophical about how this production will work on a bigger stage. But still, she’s ready to give it a go and they’ve been redrawing some of the panels.

“By the time we open in Grahamstown later this year, the show will be finished.

“The writer and director have given me the project and are happy to participate, but their creative energy needs to come to an end,” she explained about the show’s future.

While she doesn’t want to be doing this forever, Kahn can see herself expanding the show over the next two years.

“It’ll be nice to have more stories than we need, so we can swop and maybe have an encore.”

For Joburg they’re redrawing Cat’s Dream as well as some of the Epicene Butcher (the gothic tale set in the Edo period, which gives the production part of its name) but Mario’s Lament will probably stay as is.

“It’s cool to see that story more than once because it’s very funny on one level, but the philosophy is very succinct on another – it’s horrible and tragic.

“What Gwydion says is ‘a show can be great, but to be a real hit, you have to be zeitgeist in some way,” which is something Kahn’s definitely tapped into with this production.

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