Two Years On

By Kazumi Shimodate

One day when the cherry blossoms were in full bloom, my three daughters and I took a walk in a nearby park. As we approached the park Hana (3 years old) dashed straight ahead, and Solar (who had just become a 1st grader) chased after Hana in her unique leaning forward style. Umi a 4th grader, walked by my side rather embarrassed whilst watching her playful younger sisters. Under the cherry blossoms from where we could see the Hirose River on the far side, I was watching Hana and Solar energetically running around and around, just like the tigers from 'Little Black Sambo'@, and I thought to myself that as opposed to going like a flash, these past two years have been long, very long.

It was summer three years ago when we moved from the apartment where my three daughters spent their first years with their mother, to the vicarage nearby to aid the recovery of their mother's health. For Haruko and I, the attraction of that house was that with its large lawned garden and the big beautiful Teppei stoneA fireplace that adorned the spaciousB living room, it reminded us of England. And so, at Christmas time, the family could all sit around together gazing at the burning red embers. Once Haruko had gone there was no reason to live in that house anymore. However, what with hesitating about returning to the apartment overflowing with memories of Haruko, and the special place in our hearts for the place where Haruko spent the last seven months of her life, it was getting harder to leave. What was I thinking about at that time? An entry in my diary for a winter morning says this:
"Hana spilt her milk, Solar spilt her miso soup, Umi spilt her tea, I spilt the kerosene for the heater, an annoying morning fueled by spillages everywhere, the never-fall-down toy caught my eye and seemed to shine."

If nothing had happened we would probably have lived in that house up until now. But something happened that made us leave. Fire. If I had returned home as I normally did, there is no doubt that that old wood house would have burnt down in a blink of an eye with the four of us held inside. Thinking about that makes my spine freeze. On that eventful evening, I returned home an hour late because I got the rehearsal venue for the troupe wrong (as the troupe doesn't have its own place, every week the venue is different). As a consequence, the helper who would have normally gone home by this time was still there, and my daughters, next to whom I usually lay down to sleep with, were still awake. My daughters said "Good night!" to the helper who was busy getting ready to leave at the entrance and then I said, "It's already late so we won't chat today. Come on, let's get to bed!" and just as I was about to put my head to the pillow, Umi asked, "Dad, what's that crackling sound?" I got up with a start and ran towards the source of the sound.

The sound was coming from Umi's room. The west side of the room was a wall which was right next to the chimney for our fireplace, but, the fire was burning through a gap in the wall. I called the helper and as outside was too cold I told her to evacuate the children to the ground floorC, then I called the fire brigade. I took the big pan (used for making ramen soup) from the kitchen, covered my upper body with water from the upstairs bathroomD, dived into the burning room and threw a panful of water on the fire. Meanwhile, I realised my daughters were crying from fear, and Umi for some reason had come to help me put out the fire calling "Dad! Dad! Water!" as she handed me a small mug. I wonder how much I was strengthened by the courage it must have taken her to fill the mug and bring it upstairs despite being afraid. I became absorbed in putting out the fire and after much pouring of water, just for a moment, I thought the fire was out but, when I saw flames coming from a gap in the roof, I said to myself "It's reached up here" and I stood powerless and paralyzed in front of the huge number of photographs, Haruko's photographs in cardboard boxes stacked in the adjoining room. It was at that moment when the fire brigade turned up.

That night, we were kindly given a place to rest in the ballet teaching room belonging to our friends close by, the Saitoh's. During that sleepless night, I was reminded of a time long ago when I used to tread these boards, as if I was seeing a vision in front of my eyes. I remembered the time before Umi was born, when Haruko and I came here to be taught by Kazumi SaitohE, and the summer night on the rooftop of a hotel in Naples with no-one else around, surrounded by a blanket of stars, and a Mediterranean breeze blowing while just the two of us danced.

Miraculously the damage caused by the fire was limited to the wall by the chimney and the room on the second floor, and the cause of the fire was put down in the fire department's report as a construction fault in the fireplace and chimney. The inside of the wall next to the chimney had become charcoaled due to the heat over a long time, and it had got to the point that by using the fireplace, a fire could beak out at any time. The oddest thing is that the owner of the vicarage, Professor Mensendick - a missionary who built the fireplace - had fallen critically ill just before the fire and then passed away a couple of days later.

The next morning when I looked upon the ripped out fireplace, I felt as if I had been released from my commitment to the various painful memories connecting me with this house. And from that point I started thinking about leaving the house and going back to the apartment.

The apartment had changed dramatically in two months in the hands of Chiba-san and Kajiwara-san, professionals in their work as the troupe's propmasters. It looked nothing like its old self. Yet, it was almost as if Haruko's spirit had become embodied into the space itself, and our daughters seemed to be at ease within that space. The white walls, the rounded pillars, the warm flooring, the light blue tiles, the cloth covered lights and the golden lamps, the Ooya Stone mantelpiece, the picture on the apartment door drawn by Yoh Shouji who designed the posters for 'Hamule'F (the image was based on Haruko's favourite cypress lined Tuscan road), the wall painting about three tatami mats in size which my artist friend Masanori Hamada had drawn on the veranda (based on my favourite place Shichigahama), the toilet nicknamed 'the aquarium' decorated with the family picture painted by my niece Rina (the four of us sitting astride a whale), the bathroom with its built in glass blocks which allowed the light from outside to softly flow in and the semicircular bath nicknamed 'Otamaya Hot Spring', the kitchen with its counter and sink that faced out just like in ramen and sushi shops, the glass walled study which allows the children to see me any time, Umi and Solar's small study room, Hana's toy corner. And the bedroom known as the planetarium with ten thousand stars projected on the ceiling. The corridor walls decorated by the main works of Haruko NakamuraG, and, the highlight is the window built opposite the hearth. When you open the window what awaits you is akin to 108 photographs of Haruko's smiling face enveloped in a bubble.

And that is how we returned, in the spring of last year, to the apartment building by the Hirose River named 'Otamayashita' (which means under the shrine of Date MasamuneH). The other residents from before and the caretaker, who looks out for the children, have warmly welcomed us back. And whilst being supported by many wonderful people we are slowly returning to that calm life we had when Mummy was around. With the Tokyo performances of 'Hamule' smoothly behind us, and the Morioka and Sendai Izumity performances ahead of us, I wrote the following in my journal during the twilight hours one day in Autumn:
"Before dawn, I wake up and I hear Umi, Solar, and Hana breathing in their sleep. Breathing in sync. A living sound, the most dear sound in the world, the sound of Haruko in heaven."

This year was jam packed with performances of 'Hamule', and as I got busier, in order to ensure time with my daughters, more than ever I had to ask help from all sorts of people everywhere. Whenever there was a performance, Daddy would have to be away so for my daughters, 'Hamule' and the troupe could become the enemy, therefore, I would take them with me when possible. To rehearsals, to Tokyo, to Morioka, to Hiraizumi. On these occasions I called upon my Mum and younger sister for help, at other times, Katou-san (who was already helping). As a result of my strategy, instead of becoming enemies with the troupe, my daughters have become big fans; Hana asks me with her glistening eyes "Dad, where's Hamule next?" and Umi, who got to know everyone so well at practice and backstage (despite being such a shy one!), made her stage debut at the Izumity performance (a walk-on part with no lines).

I think out of all the works the troupe has performed, 'Hamule' has a very special meaning. Some reasons for this are as follows. The performance of 'Hamlet' itself is a work without comparison in the world of theatre; as an adaptation it has been our boldest project ever; the script from beginning to end is all in the Sendai dialect; it has been an uphill road to the day of the performance; trying to do a performance in a large theatre when in the past I have stuck with smaller places (in fact, with no financial help).

Sendai Izumity 21, 5 performances over 3 days, capacity 2000, and a rerun. I realized the size of our task after we had finished the taxing Tokyo performances. In March last year 800 company fans came to 'Hamule' at the 141 Theatre in Sendai's Aoba-ku. Even if the direction changed and the actors polished their performances, I was guessing less than 300 would be kind enough to come again. Bearing this in mind, we readied ourselves for our biggest operation in history; I (who had up till now been lazy?) became the General Staff Boss on the front line and flew into business activities. Along with Naoko Takeichi, Taiko Murata, and Aya Takahashi a very famous crack commando unit we, regardless of appearances, went round numerous high schools, numerous companies, and numerous organizations (of course using days when I had no lecture responsibilities at Tohoku Gakuin University or troupe rehearsals). And how grateful was I for the passionate covering fire offered by my colleagues from various stages of my life: Shiogama 2 Elementary School, Itsubashi Junior High School, Tohoku Gakuin Senior High School, International Christian University, Tohoku Gakuin University. As a result of all the sweat and tears, I could expect 1000 attendees, however, as the performance grew closer, I kind of feared (but coolly!) that over that number was out of our hands. Well beyond our expectations 1700 people came to see us. It was a performance of 'Hamule' filled with immense emotion, immense inspiration and immense gratitude. And now, as a new door opens up before us, our hearts are filled with joy.



@ A popular children's book published in Japan in 1953 and pulled off the shelves because of it's supposedly racist content in 1988. Republished in 2005.
A A kind of slate.
B Original says 30 tatami mats in size. Around 45.91 square metres
C British English. First floor in USA and Japan.
D Japanese second floor.
E Japanese names in this essay have been reversed to the English fashion of first name followed by family name, except for names that appear as a surname only and then they appear with the suffix esanf, a title comparable to Mr. Mrs. Miss. etc in English.
F Hamule is the Shakespeare Company Japan's original adaptation of Hamlet. This romanization attempts to keep the Japanese pronunciation whilst still resembling Hamlet.
G Professional name for Haruko Shimodate
H Date Masamune (name is in Japanese order) was a famous daimyo from Sendai.