In the Year of Barbie, a provocative Japanese playwright brings us a funny, savage and sexy bargain basement dollhouse tale.

Satoko Ichihara’s play Yorobōshi, showcased at the Toyooka Theatre Festival in Hyogo Prefecture during September this year, had its premiere this summer in Frankfurt, Germany at Theater der Welt.

The story: A man has a son who loses his mother at an early age. The man remarries, and the stepmother begins to have unhealthy feelings for the boy. She sexually assaults him, and when the boy rebuffs her, she accuses him of trying to rape her. His enraged father casts the son out.

If this story sounds familiar, that’s because it is essentially the plot for Euripides’ play Hippolytus. Ichihara made her name as a playwright with a queer rendering of the Greek tragedian’s Bacchae. Her version touched on (among other things) threesomes in sex clubs, artificial insemination, and bestiality. She followed that up last year with her own take on Madama Butterfly, which was the filthiest and funniest thing I’ve seen on stage in years. It took potshots at both the white man’s fetish for Asian women and the Asian woman’s fetish for white men. No one escaped her vitriol, including Ichihara herself. 

There is a good case (made more than half a century ago by Donald Keene) that Alexander the Great’s army brought the tale of Hippolytus to India, where it was retold, later finding its way to China and eventually to Japan, where it first emerges in a sekkyōbushi, a medieval form of “sermon ballad” or morality tale, a genre that revelled in violent stories in which victims of unspeakable cruelty were miraculously redeemed at the last moment by the gods and buddhas. 

The noh play, which downplays the cruelty, has the son Shuntokumaru cast out. He eventually catches leprosy, which blinds him. His father, guided by a dream, finds Shuntokumaru begging with other lepers in the precincts of Shitennōji Temple in Osaka and takes him home. A happy ending. This story was picked up in the puppet and kabuki theatre, with various plot twists. It was also fodder for plays by two controversial postwar writers, Yukio Mishima and Shūji Terayama.

Ichihara’s version had punk and noise musician Kakushin Ishihara on the biwa and classically trained vocalist Sachiko Hara as the narrator. The traditional puppet theatre, which sprung from sekkyōbushi, is also an inspiration for Ichihara’s version, which is a Grand Guignol puppet play full of multiple cases of incest, domestic violence, dismemberment, murder and suicide. 

The father is portrayed as a construction site dummy waving a baton. His wife is a buxom sex doll, and so is the stepmother. The boy is first played by a Kewpie doll, then by a larger puppet—a beautiful but evil boy. And a good thing this was a puppet play, as Ichihara reminded the audience, more than once, that she could get away with puppets what she could never portray on stage with live actors.

All in all, a fascinating horror show. Ichihara’s themes are sexism, racism and speciesism, and here she aims her invective at the Japanese family system. A month later, in the lobby of a noh theatre in Tokyo, I ran into noh scholar Sachiko Oda, who’d seen Ichihara’s play in Kinosaki and loved it. “A woman’s rage is a beautiful thing! (Onna no ikari wa nanto suteki da!),” she remarked. 

Women’s voices are loud, clear and relevant on the Japanese stage today.  

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