Friday, 6 March 2015

Theatre review: Harajuku Girls

Irish-Japanese playwright Francis Turnly tackles one of the less salubrious stereotypes about Japan in Harajuku Girls. Tokyo teenager Mari (Haruka Abe) is about to finish high school, and hopes to go to the national theatre school in the new term. As she waits for her results she spends her free time in her favourite way: Dressing up in Sailor Moon cosplay and going to Jingu Bridge in the Harajuku district, where tourists take photos of the girls in costumes. When her father forbids her from going on her drama course and demands she find an office job, Mari decides to fund it herself, and her hobby could turn into a money-spinner: She follows her best friend Keiko (Elizabeth Tan) to an "image club," a quasi-brothel where girls dress as cops, schoolgirls and anime characters, renting out their time to middle-aged salarymen who want to act out their fantasies.

Turnly's play is pretty unforgiving about the darker side of Japan's pop-culture obsession, and the way its uneasy coexistence with a traditional, still strongly patriarchal society finds sometimes disturbing release.

But Jude Christian's production manages a pretty delicate balancing act. On the one hand there's no holding back from the creepy side of the story: Cécile Trémolières' set has the actresses changing costume behind glass panels, lending the uneasy feel of a peep show; and Mari's disastrous early attempt to find a sugar daddy is made all the more uncomfortable by casting the same actor who plays her real father, Nomo Gakuji. But the damaged, damaging but loyal Keiki isn't the only influence on Mari, as she also stays close to Yumi (Kunjue Li,) a dim but endlessly optimistic girl, whose parents pray she fails her exams so they can spend all their savings on her 7-year-old brother's education.

And as with the bubblegum pop covers of Western music that dominate the soundtrack, Harajuku Girls holds onto a sense of optimism that stops it from being a purely damning look at modern Japan. It's also frequently a very funny show, and a colourful one thanks to Trémolières' fantasy costumes.

It's an interesting play and, despite often delving into dark areas, an entertaining one, with appealing performances at its centre. Abe's Mari is sweet, innocent but with an inner strength, in contrast to Tan's aggressive but vulnerable Keiko. Despite English clearly not being her first language, Li makes lovely distinction between the adorable Yumi and the jaded, mean-spirited image club girl Fumiko. Having been to Japan this was a must-see for me, but I think it's generally a fascinating look at the way a highly traditional, work-obsessed culture unwinds, in sometimes unhealthy ways.

Harajuku Girls by Francis Turnly is booking until the 21st of March at the Finborough Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 5 minutes including interval.

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