Breakout from the other side

Actors Matt Crosby and Jane Phegan with writer-director Yoji Sakate. Photo by Michihiro Furumoto

Actors Matt Crosby and Jane Phegan with writer-director Yoji Sakate. Photo by Michihiro Furumoto

THE scene is Cowra, NSW on August 5, 1944 and 545 Japanese prisoners of war at a camp are planning the largest escape attempt in Australia’s history.

It’s 70 years since the Cowra Breakout, where 1000 prisoners tried to break out and 231 young Japanese and four Australians died in the attempt.

Then Prime Minister John Curtin called it “a suicidal disregard of life”, while the honchos, the heads of the PoW blocks, advised the men: “Don’t humiliate yourself by being captured alive”.

Thomas Keneally’s recent fictionalised account of the breakout, “Shame and the Captives”, puts the Australian point of view and now a play coming to Australia from Japan will show, for the first time, the Japanese perspective.

Okawa (Tsunekazu Inokuma) fires up a group of Japanese PoWs for a suicidal banzai charge at the Cowra prison camp.

Okawa (Tsunekazu Inokuma) fires up a group of Japanese PoWs for a suicidal banzai charge at the Cowra prison camp.

Set in a reconstructed barrack shed, Yoji Sakate’s play, “Honchos Meeting in Cowra”, portrays the collaboration between two film-school teachers (Jane Phegan and Mari Nakayama) as they teach their students to “meet their characters”, the soldiers in Camp B – young Japanese men grappling with ideas of honour, shame and personal integrity.

Australian director and Japanese theatre expert, Aubrey Mellor, tells “CityNews” that “the truth did not come out for many years, until some of the prisoners began to talk of it without shame… Sakate says that what happened there is still happening in Japan today.”

“Honcho” is staged by Tokyo’s Rinkogun (“Phosphorescence”) Theatre Company for its 30th anniversary and is playing in Tokyo, Kobe and Nagoya before Australia, where it will be performed in Cowra at the Breakout commemorations, in Canberra at The Street Theatre and at NIDA in Sydney.

The full company of  “Honchos Meeting in Cowra” in Tokyo. Photo by Michihiro Furumoto

The full company of “Honchos Meeting in Cowra” in Tokyo. Photo by Michihiro Furumoto

Writer and director Sakate has also engaged four guest actors from Australia – Matthew Crosby, Baylea Davis, Sarah Jane Kelly and Sonny Vrebac – all NIDA alumni and Australian-Japan Foundation scholars.

Veteran actor Crosby says: “Rehearsals are flying… Sakate San is a great artist – really enjoying the opportunity to work with him…Wow. It is powerful.”

The play is spoken in Japanese and English, with English subtitles.

“Honchos Meeting in Cowra”, The Street Theatre, August 6-7, bookings to 6247 1223 or thestreet.org.au

 

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