Listen for the truth: Performance 4a & Griffin Theatre Company’s Yasukichi Murakami: Through A Distant Lens

In the early twentieth century Yasukichi Murakami, a successful Japanese photographer and entrepreneur, lived and worked in Broome and Darwin. Following the outbreak of World War Two, he and his family were interned as enemy aliens, and his extensive photographic collection was lost. Presented by Griffin Theatre Company and Performance 4a, Yasukichi Murakami: Through A Distant Lens brings Murakami’s life and work come alive with the help of projections, sound, video, and is a poignant and moving exploration of what matters to us, what we value as important, and how we can be remembered once we pass away.

This production is very much autobiographical, in that it is a dramatisation of Mayu Kanamori’s own search to discover Murakami’s story and try to find the lost photographs. While Kanamori is played here by Arisa Yura, we never lost the personal connection between writer and subject, the personal journey which forms the heart of the story. The story – or, rather, Kanamori’s story – is essentially a simple one, but it is by no means less powerful because of it, and it reminds me at times of Angela’s Kitchen, and the historical context surrounding Hilary Bell’s The White Divers of Broome. While photographing Murakami’s gravestone in the Japanese cemetery in Cowra, where the internment camp was, Mayu meets Murakami’s ghost, played with warmth by Kuni Hashimoto. The play is essentially a rhapsody on a theme, as Mayu tries to unravel the loose ends of Murakami’s life, to try and work out the whys and whats and hows, to try and understand him as a man, a person, a human, and not just a name on a stone.
In turn, we are drawn back into the past through Murakami’s photographs, Mayu’s questions, and the ghost of Eki, Murakami’s first wife and business partner (played on video by Yumi Umiumare). What unfolds is a story about identity, family, friendship, ambition and the legacy we leave behind us, whether it’s a physical tangible one or a more ephemeral personal one. In many ways, not much happens at all, in a linear dramatic sense, but that does the piece a disservice, because it’s not about the drama at all, but about the personal connection to the photographs, to the man behind them (literally, in this case), to the production itself. 
Director Malcolm Blaylock’s touch is invisible but inspired, preferring to let the story unfold by itself, with clever transitions between performance styles aided and amplified by Terumi Narushima’s score and sound design. Mic Gruchy’s projections, and Luiz Pampolha’s lighting, add mood and atmosphere, but remain unobtrusive, keeping the focus on Mayu and her story, on the people as opposed to the issues. And this is where the piece is so powerful: while it is grounded in a historical context that straddles the second world war, it doesn’t make it bluntly obvious or overplay it. Instead, the context is another texture in its already rich fabric, which includes cultural amnesia, the constantly changing culture of photography, and a kind of immortality through remembrance.

While it may not change the world overnight, Yasukichi Murakami: Through A Distant Lens is a compelling and thought-provoking piece of theatre, a meditation if you’d like, upon the nature of self, identity and legacy, and how we can bring the deceased to life by remembering them, by keeping their memory alive. 

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