The Japan Foundation
Performing Arts Network Japan
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The Last Laugh
Photos by Keith Pattison
Data
Premiere: 2007
Length: 2 hr.
Acts, scenes: Two acts, 12 scenes
Cast: 2 (2 men)
Japanese Drama Database
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Play of the Month Play of the Month
2007.3.23
The Last Laugh 
 
This play is the English version of Koki Mitani’s two-person play Warai no Daigaku that premiered in Tokyo in 1996. It has been adapted into English by Richard Harris for a run of performances in London’s West End under the title “The Last Laugh.” The English version has been adapted with efforts to convey to British audiences the unique word play and humor that Mitani’s plays are known for. The cast for the 2007 London production consists of Martin Freeman (in the role of the comedy playwright) and Roger Lloyd Pack (in the role of the censor) and the director is Bob Tomson. The production is co-produced by Bill Kenwright and Japan’s Parco Co., Ltd.


Set during World War II, this play is about a comedy playwright for a comedy theater who is trying to get official approval from the military for his latest play. The script must be read by the censors to confirm that there are no passages that violate censorship rules and then given an official stamp of approval. The playwright has become familiar with the censorship official and knows that a gift of chocolate always sweetens the review process. This time he has brought his usual gift of chocolate along to get his new play approved.

However, he arrives to find a new censor. He is informed that the former censor is now under investigation. What follows is a ten-day push-and-pull battle between the writer who need the approval for his upcoming performances and the stodgy censor who can’t even understand the simplest of jokes.

The new censor knows nothing about theater and can’t even distinguish between the script and the stage directions in the play manuscript. What’s more, he is discussed with the idea of someone trying to put on a ridiculous comedy at a time when the nation is fighting for its very survival. It is not an antiwar play to begin with and it doesn’t have any bold, controversial slogans, but still the writer must make all kinds of conciliatory efforts and convince the censor of the importance of laughter.

The play he has written draws on Shakespeare’s classic and is titled “Romeo and Juliet The Comedy.” It is just a harmless slapstick comedy. But, the censor has a little knowledge of the classics and so he commands the writer to put Henry Five in the play to make it more fitting as a wartime play. It doesn’t take the writer long to re-work his script and rename it “Henry and Juliet The Comedy.” Next the censor commands him to include the phrase “God Save Our Leader” three times in the play and to have the Divisional Chief Inspector appear and recite government policy. The writer rewrites the play with a role for a horse named God Save Our Leader and finds a way to have a handsome young actor appear as the Divisional Chief Inspector. He also makes sure to try to get on the censor’s good side with thoughtful little things like having the prop maker build a birdhouse to give to the censor when he learns that he keeps a pet crow.

As the rewriting proceeds, the censor begins to discover some of the fascination of playwriting and theater. But it doesn’t make him any easier on the playwright and he continues to order more changes, making suggestions for the changes himself and finally even puts on a wig to join in the rehearsals. In the process, the writer has been trying to convince the censor of the importance of comedy, saying things like, “Laughter is something human beings need to endure the cruelty of life,” and “It is a means to help us forget the fact that we are all going to die someday.”

But, in the end the writer lets his true desires get the better of him. He ends up putting the censor in a rage by offending his wounded heart at a sad time when the censor has learned of his son’s death on the battlefront. The writer realizes that all his efforts to that point have been for nothing when the censor finally orders to “Remove all the humor from the play.” The completely rewritten script he comes back with is nothing but a straightforward anti-establishment comedy. Of course it is rejected, but the writer knew what he was doing. He had just received his call-up papers. In the end he feels a sense of satisfaction at finally having written the play he wanted.

The censor had been at the theater the night before. He had heard so much about comedy and the meaning of laughter from the writer and, now that he bore the sadness of his son’s death, he wanted to find out whether or not it was true that laughter can be a balm for the soul. What he found was people lost in laughter, forgetting their wartime hardships and grief.

Due to his position, he could not approve the new play for performance. Still, during the time they had spent together had created a quiet but certain bond between the two. And, yes, isn’t a situation like this true comedy? In few words the censor wishes the writer good luck, that he may return from the war unharmed.

Profile: Born: 1961
Born in Tokyo in 1961, Koki Mitani graduated from the theater course of the Department of Arts of Nihon University. In 1983 he got together with Kazuyuki Aijima, Zen Kajiwara, Masahiko Nishimura and others to form the company “Tokyo Sunshine Boys.” As indicated by the company name, which was borrowed from the Neil Simon play, they presented traditional situation comedies with clearly depicted characters. As typified by the representative work Twelve Gentle Japanese, taking its situation from the coming introduction of a jury court system in Japan, Mitani’s plays commonly take place in a limited space and involve groups of people reacting and running around in mad situations where one comical occurrence after another sends the hassled characters scurrying through a bright, fast-paced and often thrilling series of situations delivering lines in everyday Japanese. In addition to theater, he has broadened his range of activities and written the screenplays for the television drama series “Furuhata Ninzaburo” and written the screenplays for and directed the movies Radio no Jikan and THE Uchoten Hotel. In 1994 he announced that the Tokyo Sunshine Boys would suspend their activities for 30 years after their production Tokyo Sunshine Boys no Wana. Then he said that the Tokyo Sunshine Boys would regroup in 2024 for a production of Ball(King) Lear.
The year Warai no Daigaku premiered, it won Mitani the 4th Yomiuri Theater Grand Prix “Best Play” award. In 2006 he wrote his first Kabuki play “PARCO Kabuki--KETTO! TAKADA NO BABA” and in April of 2007 his latest play Les Confidents will premiere at the PARCO Theater in Tokyo.
 
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