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‘Home is near; but it is far … very far’

Co-production looks at the lives of Koreans living in Japan in the 1960s


The play “Yakiniku Dragon” is what you could call a masterpiece.

Watching it is like reading a really good book in one sitting. Not only is the story itself genuine and well-organized but every detail of the play, including the witty lines and props, is very delicately knitted together so that the audience’s attention never wavers.

An indescribable emotional mix of pity, sorrow, anger and relief swallows up the audience throughout the show, driving many to tears, and lingers on in the mind for a long time afterwards.

The play narrates the joys and sorrows of a Korean family living in Japan in the late 1960s. The Kims went to Japan with the desperate hope of survival during the Korean War, but have no means to return home although they miss it terribly. Instead, the six-member family has to eke out a precarious living, fighting against the cold shoulders of the Japanese and clinging to what is left of their roots. 
A scene from the play “Yakiniku Dragon” (Seoul Arts Center)
A scene from the play “Yakiniku Dragon” (Seoul Arts Center)

Co-produced by South Korea’s Seoul Arts Center and Japan’s New National Theater Foundation, the play premiered in Korea and Japan in 2008 and scooped numerous awards in both countries, including the Grand Prix of the Asahi Performing Arts Awards and five different Yomiuri Theater Awards.

It is being staged again this year with the same cast except for one Korean-Japanese actor who passed away in the intervening time.

The Tokyo show, which recorded a sellout, was held from Feb.7 to 20. In Seoul, it opened Wednesday at Seoul Arts Center’s Towol Theater in the south of the city.

A jolly day at Yakiniku Dragon, a “gobchang,” or beef intestines restaurant run by the Kims, is already unfolding on stage 15 minutes before the scheduled opening time, with smoke and smell rising from the grill.

Chatting away in Japanese and Korean, the performers’ acting seems entirely natural. It is like peeking into a real household living in a shabby Korean village, near an airport in Osaka, Japan, about half a century ago.

From spring to following spring, five seasons unfold during the three-hour show. Familiar events that any family would go through fill the scenes, such as marriages, divorces and education problems. Underneath the ordinariness, however, is one unforgettable and crucial fact for the family ― they are Koreans living in Japan; they are the uninvited.

They have to bear the ear-splitting roar of airplanes flying overhead everyday because the airport was built there without any regard for the Korean village located nearby. No matter how educated they are, Koreans cannot dream of getting a white-collar job. The Japanese look down on them, calling them “kimchi,” although they look the same and even speak the same language.

“We have to live in Japan. He cannot be defeated by being treated as an outcast!” cries out the father, when his wife suggests their son should attend a Korean school instead of a Japanese school.

When the son, who suffers from aphasia after years of getting beaten up and being ostracized at the Japanese school, ends his life by jumping off a rooftop, everyone on and off the stage freezes with a shriek. Then, silence. Cherry blossoms shower down, covering everything on the stage as if nothing had happened.

Spring returns and the family has to separate because their house is demolished by the Japanese government. The authorities insist that the site is state land although the father had bought it. The first daughter decides to go to North Korea, the second to the South and the third gets married in Japan.

“Home is near; but it is far … very far,” utters the father with a resigned look, when he tells his story to his Japanese son-in-law-to-be.

The play was written and directed by Chong Wishing, a script writer and director who is acclaimed in both countries. He himself is Korean-Japanese, which explains how he is able to so subtly depict the situations and emotions of the characters. But he never loses a sense of humor although he is delivering a very heavy message.

Subtitles are displayed on walls flanking the stage. The lines are mostly in Japanese, only some in Korean, taking into account that most second generation Korean residents in Japan do not speak Korean well.

The actors and actresses include both Koreans and Japanese ― Shin Chul-jin (father/Kim Yong-gil), Koh Soo-hee (mother/Koh Young-sun), who is well-known for her impressive role in the movie “Sympathy for Lady Vengeance,” Awata Uhara (first daughter/Kim Shizuka), Urabe Fusako (second daughter/Kim Rika), Joo In-young (third daughter/ Kim Mika) and Wakamatsu Chikara (son/Kim Tokio).

“Yakiniku Dragon” runs through March 20 at Seoul Arts Center’s Towol Theater in Seocho-dong, southern Seoul. Tickets range from 30,000 won to 50,000 won. For more information, call (02) 580-1300 or visit www.sacticket.co.kr.

By Park Min-young  (claire@heraldcorp.com)
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