The West

Fable of unlikely Holocaust hero
Monica Main, Brian Liau and Ian Toyne in The Warrior and Princess. Picture: Supplied.

Nearly 70 years have passed since Emperor Hirohito surrendered to the Allies and brought an end to World War II but a shadow still hangs over the Land of the Rising Sun.

Older Australians in particular have struggled to forget and forgive the Japanese for their cruelty to our prisoners of war during the building of the Burma Railway and other atrocities.

But The stereotype of the cold- blooded, orders-following Japanese is challenged in a new play by veteran Perth theatre-makers Shirley Van Sanden and Monica Main that uncovers the remarkable story of Chiune Sugihara, a diplomat known as the country's Oskar Schindler. While serving as a vice-consul for the empire in Lithuania during the early years of World War II, Sugihara defied orders from Japan's foreign ministry and issued thousands of visas to fleeing Jewish families, saving an estimated 10,000 lives.

Van Sanden came across Sugihara's story while watching an episode of ABC TV's Compass program titled The Jews of Shanghai late in 2001. Amid the darkness and disorder of 9/11 and the Children Overboard affair there was a flash of light from the past, an uplifting, timely tale reminding us that an entire people should not be tarnished by the action of the few.

"I was profoundly moved by the selfless act of kindness of this Japanese diplomat," says Van Sanden, who was struck by the contrast between the heroism of Sugihara and mean-spiritedness of the Howard government which claimed asylum seekers had thrown children into the sea in order to enter the country.

Playwright Van Sanden and her collaborator Main (both share the directing credit) have taken the essence of the Sugihara story and transformed it into a one-hour play, The Warrior and the Princess, that blends live action, shadow play, puppetry and music.

Main says that The Warrior and the Princess is not a documentary but a reimagining of history, a fable that goes to the essence of Sugihara's story and speaks across the decades to our own troubled time.

"We wanted to avoid the debates over veracity that invariably arise when you turn a piece of history into a play, so we changed the names of the characters, invented, merged and omitted others," explains Main.

She says that the heart of the story is Kyoshi Yoshida's struggle to reconcile his compassion for Jewish refugees pleading for him to save them and the orders laid down by the Japanese government.

"Yoshida lives by the way of the Bushido code, the code of the samurai warrior. This stresses the virtues of duty, honour, loyalty, to basically follow the orders of your superiors. But he finds it hard to follow the code with all these refugees outside his office begging for help."

It is also the story of a man anxious to become a part of the 20th century.

"He wants to speak English and read great literature. He doesn't' want to follow in the footsteps of his father and become a doctor. It's a classic story of a man torn between his head and his heart."

It is a remarkable coming together of two very different people, a Japanese man steeped in his country's traditions, and Eastern European Jews escaping the Holocaust, which is why Van Sanden and Main decided to use puppets as one of their storytelling devices.

"Puppetry is a big part of the traditions of both Japan and Eastern Europe. So we thought it was a natural way to tell the story of a man from the East who forges an unlikely bond with European Jews."

Van Sanden and Main believe that while their story takes place decades ago in a faraway place, it speaks persuasively to the present moment.

The Warrior and the Princess is at the Blue Room Theatre until October 20.

The West Australian

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