Baseball, America, Atrocities, And Dance: Toshiki Okada's "God Bless Baseball"

The new play by one of Japan's best and most polarizing playwrights is about the tension between Japan and Korea, the atomic bomb, and...Ichiro.
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There must have been some concerns that he was not going to make it. Toshiki Okada and his play, God Bless Baseball—in which he uses the sport as a lens on decades of Japanese-Korean enmity, Eastern cultural assimilation, and American Pacific hegemony, and somehow does it all in about 100 minutes—had alighted on the East Coast with performances in New York City and Philadelphia. Okada managed to wing his way to Chicago just ahead of a historic blizzard.

After giving an artist talk roughly a week before God Bless Baseball's Chicago debut at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Okada was led to an ad hoc “press room” behind the curtain of the ground floor lobby's coat check. 40-year-olds do not look like Okada, with his mop of hair with only a soupcon of salt, his glasses like empty bookcases, Patagonia jacket, and white (possibly leather?) Onituska Tigers. He is, even in a makeshift junket unfolding in a repurposed coat check, cool. His work is, too—he’s a thoroughly modern playwright, and his work is revered in Japan for its combination of vernacular dialogue and hyperbolic gestural language. In God Bless Baseball, he takes on an ambitious task: bridging the widening and poisonous gap between his Japan and nearby Korea, one baseball bat at a time.

According to Okada, modern tensions in the relationship between the two nations stem less from the occupation of 70 years ago—which included, in its litany of horrors, forced labor and sexual slavery inflicted upon the Koreans—and more from Japan's continued reluctance to acknowledge and apologize for its complicity in those horrors. “The [Japanese] government … they don't like to tell the fact [of the occupation] to Japanese people, Japanese kids,” Okada said.

Blowback from the more nationalistic corridors of the Japanese government over his play bears out just how unready or unwilling people are to talk about this.  “And that's one of the biggest reasons Korean people are upset,” Okada said. “They are educated really well about that time in history, so that when they talk with Japanese people [and find] how much less they know about the history of our states, so it may make them upset.” This space, this empty slot on the timeline, is what Okada is seeking to fill.

The play is an international collaboration between Korea and Japan, and counts among its funders the Japanese government's Agency for Cultural Affairs, and among its producers the Korean Asian Culture-Complex-Asian Arts Theater; it debuted at the Asian Culture Complex-Asian Arts Theater's Opening Festival in Gwangju, South Korea, in September 2015 before bowing in Tokyo that November. “I was very happy to experience this kind of international collaboration with Korea,” Okada said. “Very, very big. Almost a treasure for me.”

In the play, Korean actors portray Japanese characters and vice versa, with two screens—hovering like stadium lights—providing subtitles. Baseball was chosen as the play’s common language not only because of its shared popularity in the two nations but also as a way to bring in the United States and the impact it has had on both nations, with which it remains inextricably entwined. The impact of longstanding U.S. Military presence and cultural imperialism on both South Korea and Japan are touchy subjects that many Americans may not even be aware exists. After the wars, the atomic bomb, and the fact that everyone's enlisted friends seem somehow to get stationed in one or the other of the two countries, the American influence on Korea and Japan remains unknown here.

It is Okada's hope that the play not only begins to bridge the divide between Koreans and Japanese, but also shine a light on the role that the United States plays in the histories, and modern iterations, of both nations.

***

In the direct-address, fuck-the-fourth-wall spirit of Okada's play, here's an impression of how God Bless Baseball works, at least at the MCA (spoilers abound, if you plan to see it yourself, and please prepare to get a bit … conceptual).

There is, of course, a diamond, minimal almost to the point of abstraction, just baselines and bases and a batters box on a dark surface, somewhere between scratches on a mirror and ad hoc blacktop fields. The audience is in the outfield, the subtitles in the stadium seats, and looming over the entire thing—right over the batter’s box—is a sculpture. It looks like a TIE fighter cockpit covered in milk; actually, it looks exactly like a B-29 Superfortress nosecone, like the Enola Gay nosecone … and out there under the nosecone, to an organ melody of the “Charge!” song and the Mickey Mouse Club theme (“M-i-c ...”) come two women with baseball mitts dangling from their hands, alien attachments at the end of their limbs that they fiddle and move with the grace of deep-sea submersible graspers.

The women come out and wait, then share with the audience and each other their ignorance vis-a-vis baseball; these opening moments set the pace for the entire play, which is roughly the pace of a baseball game, which is to say relatively slow and with much trading back and forth, a line spoken in Japanese and then Korean, a beat taken between characters as if changing innings. A Japanese man who personally dislikes baseball attempts to teach the women—one Korean, the other unidentified—the basic rules of the game, and they all recount anecdotes, memories, and mores as they pertain to their countries and the sport. Bouncing (figuratively) against each other, there is much standing about, in that kinetic boredom vibe that reigns in right field. They change innings and flounder in the gaps in their knowledge.

The Japanese man, Korean woman, and unidentified woman are joined by only two other characters. The Enola Gay nosecone is God, is a paternal figure, is the United States, but is first the Celestial Umpire, introduced to us by calling strikes on the women as they take their turns to bat; he is almost ambivalent, delivering the history of baseball's arrival in Japan and Korea with the same cool dispassion as he recounts the Korean credit crisis, assuring the characters that Chan Ho Park and Hideo Nomo are equally great, an equalization of their heroes serving as a representation of their countries, which remain only superficially different to the American eye.

Stalking from out beyond the foul poles is a fanciful and frightening Ichiro, dressed in an all-over print hoodie—his signature 51 on his back. His every menacingly graceful step is marked by the moaning of black and silver Mizunos, an assured and powerful baseball presence. He is the only one with any aptitude for the game at all, and he is also a stand-in for proud and forgetful Japan, his strength and skill and honor all a protection and projection of the status quo, each swing of his bat—the savage displacement of air—sounding like distant artillery. In every moment Ichiro is on stage, the tensions thicken like blood.

This Ichiro eventually leads the other three in a dance similar to butoh—which often includes grotesque movements and a healthy dash of absurdity—ushering in the second, more disturbing and allegorical half of the play. The dance requires of them a disassociation of their body from themselves, piece by piece—fingers flagellate like sea anemones in surge; forearms swing wildly, shoulders heave, legs collapse, everyone in great paroxysmal heaps on the floor, until eventually, inevitably, Ichiro commands that they disconnect their minds, rewarding them with 51s to place on their own backs, brands of their complicity in continuing the blind ways.  He corrals them beneath an umbrella and rains down chalk-covered fly balls like tiny comets. He turns the hose on them, tells them it is dangerous to leave the umbrella, holds sway—along with the Enola Gay god—over all but the unidentified woman, who alone is brave enough to stand amidst his barrage. 

She rends the umbrella, rips off the numerals, turns the hose on the nosecone. It weeps, disintegrates, melts itself—in violent, viscous sloughing—onto the diamond. And then all three stand beneath the nosecone in the pool, Okada's vision coalescing at their feet.


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