On January 17, 1995, a 7.2 earthquake struck just north of Kobe, Japan, at dawn. Between 6500 and 7000 people lost their lives. Twenty-six thousand were injured in Japan's worst quake since 1923. Many had to stand in lines at hospitals before receiving treatment. Medical supplies ran out. Damages exceeded $200 billion. Psychological aftershocks, from the 20 violent seconds when gravity left the earth, linger to this day.
Newspaper accounts of the Tokyo subway attacks, a month after the Kobe disaster, focused on the perpetrators, even glamorized them. So Haruki Murakami, Japan's master fiction writer, interviewed 60 victims and wrote Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche (1997). He situates his subjects geographically, going from an attacker to a businessman to a worker on the train. Each commuter "that morning had a face, a life, a family, hopes and fears," and a "true picture of all the survivors," not just the headliners, was in order.
In 2000, Murakami published after the quake, six short stories about the psychological aftereffects from the Kobe quake ("What I was chasing in circles," says a survivor, "must have been the tail of the darkness inside me"). Murakami blurs boundaries: the mundane always has mystery, and the mysterious, if you learn to see it -- and he's teaching -- is everyday. Margins between objects aren't rigid lines, they're penumbra. This breakdown of boundaries interconnects people in unexpected ways. At the same time, it makes them much more vulnerable to trauma than most would admit.
Just a quick taste of Murakami (from after the quake): "It's no good being too sensible when you're young. It just spoils the fun."
"People's eyes have something honest about them when they're watching a fire."
Frank Galati, whose Tony Award-winning adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath premiered at the La Jolla Playhouse, wove two of Murakami's after the quake stories into a theatrical piece. "Honey pie" and "Super-frog saves tokyo" are about healing, ultimately, but also about facing monsters in the world and, maybe more real, in the imagination.
In her sleep, Earthquake Man tries to stuff 4-year-old Sala into a tiny box. She wakes up shaking, lights every light, and for the next two hours searches for him. Junpei, a 36-year-old short story writer/friend, tells Sala the monster's just a dream. Oh no, she says, he's tall and skinny and old and yanks her arm so hard her joints crack.
In "honey pie" Junpei battles Earthquake Man with imaginative stories about Masakichi, "the all-time number-one honey bear." In "super-frog saves tokyo," Worm (a "slimy creature, big as a commuter train," but, says frog, not necessarily evil) plans to devastate Tokyo with an earthquake. Super-frog, who quotes Nietzsche and Joseph Conrad, will battle Worm but needs help. So he asks Mr. Katagiri to go underground with him the night before. But why Katagiri? He's been a bank's collection officer for 16 years, so insignificant that deadbeats leave him alone (killing him "wouldn't change anything for anybody -- least of all for Katagiri himself"). Frog, however, sees in him a singular courage amid Tokyo's teeming millions.
after the quake blends the two stories the way Murakami blurs boundaries. Also like the author, they contain much more than at first appears ("honey pie," in fact, is the decades-long history of three school friends, of love denied and gained). Galati's adaptation is so faithful to the words that some narrated portions lag (when characters talk about themselves in the third person, we've drifted far from theatrical immediacy). The soft-spoken piece has a cumulative effect, however. Like a pebble splashing in a pond, it creates expanding circles that ripple long after the curtain comes down.
A proscenium arch stands at the rear of James Schuette's thrust-stage set. Shiny red, and surrounded by metallic gray, horizontal lines, the arch becomes a kind of portal, through which the mundane and the mysterious intersect.
To his great credit, director Galati refuses to spike moments for entertainment's sake. He trusts the material, his excellent, attentive actors, and musicians playing a cello and koto, to weave the spell. On the surface, the actors don't change all that much. But understated performances allow the audience to enter the characters, where emotions swirl. Hanson Tse, for example, undergoes a major transition as Junpei, from detached observation to emotional involvement, so subtle it's almost invisible. Typical Murakami: when Junpei opens his heart, it's a Richter event: "He felt some kind of huge switching of places. He even heard the sound it made, like creaking of every joint in the world."
after the quake, adapted by Frank Galati from stories by Haruki Murakami
La Jolla Playhouse, Mandell Weiss Forum, UCSD
Directed by Frank Galati; cast: Aiko Nakasone, Andrew Pang, Keong Sim, Hanson Tse, Kayla Lauren Mei Mi Tucker; scenic design, James Schuette; costumes, Mara Blumenfield; lighting, James F. Ingalls; sound, Andre Pluess
Playing through August 26; Sunday, Tuesday, and Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 858-550-1010.