By Rowan Carmichael
Musical theatre isn’t easy. You have to be able to sing, dance and act, as well as give the commitment that any performance requires. To do a musical, you need a “Never Give Up” kind of mindset. I had the chance to be in a musical about a man with that very mindset — Sogo Shinji, the founder of the shinkansen. “Full speed ahead! The Shinkansen Dream ~The Story of Kiku and Shinji,” centered on Shinji’s motto “Yuufazu” (有法子 “Never give up” in Chinese) and how he never gave up on Saijo, his wife, or the shinkansen.
Like Sogo Shinji, I had to follow the spirit of “Yuufazu” even from before my audition. The auditions required me singing a set song (to be given on the day) and a Japanese poem. I was dreading this because I probably wouldn’t understand the poem even if I could read it. Even if I did understand it, I knew very few Japanese songs so I didn’t think I’d know this one. I nearly dropped out because I just assumed it would be impossible, but in the end, I decided that at worst, the experience of auditioning for a musical in Japan would be worth it. I managed to read through a poem I still don’t understand, and I was given permission to sing any song I wanted. And so I did.
I got accepted.
We all got accepted in fact. And so began the first trial: reading a script dense with Japanese that was certainly not in line with my N4/N3 skills. My lines would come up, and I’d be in the wrong place of the script, and then scrambling to read the line that was actually mine. With no prep time I couldn’t find readings for kanji, and even if I did, some of it was in the local dialect or archaic. Ultimately I was given a small role that used a combination of English and Japanese, and I was able to focus on really making those lines work.
How do you sing a small tsu (っ)? Singing was more of a trial than I expected. I’d never read sheet music with Japanese before and the っused on notes was confusing. For the longest time I found the songs difficult to memorize. With words flowing so much into each other it was a puzzle to just know where the words broke, making finding the meaning for words I didn’t know difficult if not impossible when clustered together. As someone who usually has little trouble memorizing an English song, this was frustrating. The one thing I thought I’d have no trouble with ended up being a major difficulty! It took me several extra weeks of solid practice to nail the lyrics so that I could finally work on the dance.
Dancing was a surprising relief. If you were to look at me, dancing might not seem like my favored activity. But because learning the dances was a simple matter of watch and repeat, it was a nice break from using so much energy listening out for instructions.
Which leaves the biggest continuous challenge I had: following directions. We were a pure Japanese troupe aside from me, so naturally all the directions were given in Japanese. I certainly learned a lot from context, but long rehearsals (twice weekly, 3-6 hours) were exhausting. Not just because of the length, but because I wanted to not be the weakest link in the chain, and to not slow anything down, which meant always being ready to leap into action, and thus listening carefully to anything that might apply to me.
After about four months of rehearsals, it was almost time to perform the real thing. The two weeks leading up to the show consisted of 6-12 hours of rehearsals a day in the blazing summer. “Never give up” was said a lot by the producers of the show. By the time the show ran, we had been practicing for so long I think everyone had difficulty believing we were finally performing! The show sold out in both venues, and people to this day still tell me how wonderful it was. With strong performances particularly for the role of Sogo Shinji in his old age and his wife Kiku. But why don’t you see a bit for yourself?
Next time you think “I can’t do that!” imagine a rather tall, rounded Australian man performing a cheery song about never letting go of your dreams in Japanese. There are an awful lot of fascinating things to do in Japan, even in — in fact especially in — Ehime. Worry less about the ability to do, and more about making the effort to try. “Yuufazu” Never give up, never surrender to practicality. To musicals and beyond.
About the contributor: Rowan Carmichael is a Saijo ALT from Australia. You can read more of his writing in past issues of the Mikan or at loveprincesscarmichael.wordpress.com.
About the Mikan: The Mikan is a blog by and for Ehime JETs. To contribute, contact editor Anna Sheffer at email@example.com.