There was one point in our Othello which really challenged me. In the summer of last year, having brainstormed ideas and concepts with Maruyama, I started on the script and when I got to to the storm scene at the beginning of the second act, my imagination suddenly came to a halt. I had hit a brick wall.
Before I knew it, I was on the overnight train Hokuto bound for Hokkaido. It was my eldest daughter, Umi’s wish that I would travel by train - an airplane might crash and a boat might sink. Hakodate, the Oshima Peninsula, Shiraoi, Sapporo, the plains of Ishikari, the Shiretoko Peninsula, Teshikaga, Lake Mashuu, the sand banks of Notsuke, Nemuro, the Konsei plateau, Obihiro, the mountains of Hidaka. In my bag I carried the Cambridge edition of ‘Othello’, Junji Kinoshita’s translation of ‘Othello’, a collection of Ainu mythology by Yukie Chiri, and ‘Unbeaten Tracks in Japan’ by Isabella Bird.
One of my destinations was the museum for the original encampment of the Sendai clan in Shiraoi. There was a single map that I found in the documents room of the Miyagi prefectural library entitled ‘1860 The Security Area of Ezo (present day Hokkaido) by the Northern Clans’ which details the history of the Sendai clan security task in the North. Between 1855 and 1868 the Sendai clan was charged by the Shogunate with looking after the security in the area from Shiraoi to Etorofu (Iturup), and made encampments at Shiraoi, Tokachi, Akkeshi, Nemuro, Kunashir and Etorofu.
Why did I take Isabella Bird’s book? Because she travelled around Ezo during the period which we would set our Othello. 1878. Reading Bird’s travelogue as you walk around Hokkaido is like being sent back one century in a time machine. Isabella’s observations on Ezo are amazingly clear. My eyes were drawn to one particular section concerning the Ainu. ‘Compared to the lifestyle of other natives around the world, even the lowest level of Ainu life is reasonably high and outstanding. They are pure, kind towards others, honest with a sense of reverence.’ To be honest, I was a little reluctant in using the Ainu for Othello. And that’s why in choosing to set the play in Ezo, Othello would be a white American and Desdemona would be oriental.
Standing by Lake Mashuu I breathed in it’s beauty. Isabella’s description sprung to mind. ‘The silver glistening lake is like the wide open eye on the face of a blind mother nature.’ I walked around the village at Teshikaga. I popped into a thatched roof house and there was an old man weaving at a loom. On close inspection, this was a shop selling souvenirs such as carvings and fabrics but the old man didn’t seem to want to sell anything and without even glancing at me he continued to work. In the corner was a pile of wonderful lacquered wooden bowls. I was staring at these bowls when the old man asks ‘Do you know what that is?’. ‘These were swapped for salmon weren’t they?’ I answered. ‘A head barrel (kubi-oke)’ he replies nonchalantly. After that I lost track of time as I listened to him talk. The joys of travelling alone. The old man was a native Ainu born on the island of Kunashir. His soft, low voice was somewhat nostalgic. The sun set. As I left he recommended that I watch a film entitled ‘The Whistler of Kotan (Kotan no kuchibue)’. That evening, I came down with a fever at the youth hostel where I was staying. 38.5 degrees. I drank boiled water, wiped away my sweat and slept. The next morning, as if by magic I was fine. I wanted to see Kunashir from between the Shiretoko Peninsula and the Nemuro Peninsula so I went to the sand banks of Notsuke from where the Sendai clan would have crossed to Kunashir. I asked a fisherman ‘Does the sea around here get rough?’ to which he simply answered ‘It’s quiet here!’ I took out ‘Othello’ from my bag and facing the Sea of Okhotsk, I read aloud the third scene from the third act. I was praying that I would be blessed with the creation of a wonderful Othello.
So, I had stumbled at the storm scene at the beginning of the second act. Why? It was because people may think that Russia (Turkey) and the Sendai clan (Venice) may not clash at the straights of Tsugaru. Historically speaking, Russia came into contact with Japan at Nemuro, Etorofu, and Sakhalin. I wondered whether there was an area where a Russian commander attacked and sunk a vessel. I went to the Hoppou Museum in Nemuro. The old man I met there told me ‘Go to the Takadaya Kahei Memorial Museum in Hakodate.’ ‘Why Takadaya?’ I asked back. ‘Out between Kunashir and Etorofu is a bad spot for ships, the three currents from the Sea of Okhotsk, the Sea of Japan and the Pacific Ocean converge at the straights there and cause a whirlpool.’ Straight away I took a return train to Hakodate. And so I slept as I crossed the vast northern island. I had a dream or rather the voice of that old Ainu man rang in my ears. ‘What have you come here to do? Are you going to decorate your play with the Ainu? Write about the Ainu! Write about the discrimination and the hardships we’ve had to endure!’ I awoke just as the train crossed the white waters of the Tokachi River. I wrote a mail to Maruyama. ‘Our concept is going to greatly change. Othello has to be Ainu.’ And in no time at all a reply came. ‘Shimodate, when you told me you had to go to Hokkaido, I had a feeling this might happen. It’s going to be hard work, but let’s give it a go!’
On the evening I returned to Sendai I turned to my mother who had been watching over the house and said ‘Othello is going to be Ainu’, to which she replied ‘When there was a Hokkaido exhibition, your father had an Ainu stay here, and in the morning you sat on his knee all happy as he carved an owl for you.’ Astounded, I remembered that soft, low voice.
About three months after completing our ‘Othello’ I met Susumu Emori, a teacher at the Tohoku Gakuin University where I work. He is the leading expert on Ainu history in Japan and last year published an extensive work entitled ‘The History of the Ainu’ (published by Sofukan). The fact that Susumu Emori kindly supervised our Othello ‘from the viewpoint of the Ainu and early modern history’ fills us with joy akin to having befriended a great warrior. Through his advice, we added the Ainu word for sea ‘Atui’ and so ‘Atui Othello’ was born. And through ‘Othello’, Shakespeare tells us that true love will cross borders and skin colour, and we hope that we will faithfully present this whilst being watchful of the discrimination that the Ainu endured.