I went with my students to see a musical version of "Hotaru no Haka." I've watched both the anime and live-action movie versions, so I was prepared to go through an emotional wringer. (It has, however, been a while, and I apologize if I misrepresent those works.)
In any form - Nosaka Akiyuki's 1968 novel (partly based on his own life), Studio Ghibli's 1988 animated film, or the 2005 live-action version (for the 60th anniversary of WWII's ending) - it's a heart-breaking story. Teenage Seita and his little sister Setsuko lose their father to Navy service and their mother to firebombing. They are at first taken in by their aunt, but she resents the extra mouths to feed. Seita decides they'd be better off on their own, and they set up house in an abandoned shelter. Despite his attempts at theft, Seita can't find enough food to prevent Setsuko starving to death. He burns her body and puts the ashes in the empty candy tin she's been carrying the whole film, before also dying.
To me, it's more affecting than most war stories because it's about the aftermath, and because it illustrates the failure of many things we hold self-evident - adults protecting children, family members looking after each other, times of war inspiring compassion, civilians not dying because of other people's wars, children living long enough to grow up.
With all that, the musical had a good basic plot - which is more than can be said for, say, Cats. And the music was also good - nothing extraordinary. Nothing so catchy it stuck in my head, but nothing so terrible it stuck in my head either. A good balance, I think - original without being weird, familiar without being over-used. So many new musicals - and, for that matter, J-Pop songs - just make me think, "I have heard the same song done a hundred times before and done better." And that wasn't the cause here. Perhaps if I had understood the lyrics I wouldn't be so tolerant - I have a sneaking suspicion they were rather cheesy from what I could understand.
The performers were impressive, both the leads and the ensemble. They had strong, sweet voices and were pretty good dancers. The one quibble I had on the score was Setsuko, who was played by a short adult doing a squeaky voice. I can appreciate the difficulties of having a child actor, especially on tour, what with labor laws and mature themes. I still found it hard to take a short adult doing a squeaky voice seriously, which unfortunately threw me out of the sadder scenes. I'm not saying they needed to cart a four-year-old around - but even a young teen could have handled the role while having a more natural child-like appeal.
The anime and the live-action differ in one major aspect. In the former, the aunt is a monstrous and unintelligibly uncaring creature. She sells Seita's and Setsuko's mother's kimonos, and keeps the rice she buys from it. In the live-action, her motivations are made clearer - she's afraid for her own children. The musical definitely follows the anime version, which makes for easier viewing - as our loyalties are undivided - but less touching, I think, and less realistic - as how often are people one-dimensionally cruel? Personally I found the live-action more powerful largely for the additional layers of that character.
And then there were moments where it just got too anime. Like whenever Setsuko ate one of the candy drops, the female ensemble came out dressed like said candy and did a song-and-dance expounding their different delicious flavors - "Orange! Lemon! Chocolate!" No, worse than an anime, it was just plain a commercial. I suppose it was meant to be endearing and show what a imaginative child she is, but really it was ridiculous and the second time around - as she's starving - kind of offensive.
The director's "taste meter" could have used some calibration. At one point, of course, the story must include Hiroshima and Nagasaki - their pictures projected and their numbers stated. Usually that alone is enough to make me teary-eyed, whether on screen, stage, or textbook - but this time it was immediately followed by what might have been intended as "an interpretive dance of people who have just been the victims of an atomic bomb" but came across more as "rejected choreography from Zombies! The Musical." Pretty much as tasteless as you can imagine. Not even the red lighting and dramatically billowing curtains could save that number.
Speaking of curtains, there was an unfortunate technical problem at the beginning. So it started and ended in a modern setting, and the ensemble did a "Tokyoites stuffed onto a train" dance before a red curtain fell on the front of the stage that their silhouettes could dance against until it was whisked away to reveal the past. Theoretically. In reality, only one corner dropped and they were completely visible doing their "This would be awesome if you couldn't actually see us" moves. The issue wouldn't have been obvious except that for their "oh, crap" expressions and a few of them improving moves like pulling frantically on the dangling curtain. But for that I've only compassion as, from experience, it isn't easy schlepping your entire set around to backwoods auditoriums.
A couple directorial choices I did have a problem with: There's two ways you can handle food in theatre. One, ala "Hook" - everything is imaginary - the audience is already suspending their disbelief so why not in this arena too? Two, everything is real, and some unfortunate props mistress is dishing everything up lightning-speed backstage. I've been in and worked on shows that did both, and I'd say either work depending on the tone of the show. Food is obviously an important part of the story so I say the latter would work. But I absolutely cannot stand a director not making up their mind which way they want. We could hear the candy clinking near against their teeth next to their mics, we could hear the rice being poured from a bag to a box - it was very visceral. And yet a few scenes later they're eating out of empty bowls.
And then there was a scene that made my inner director thrash in its folding chair. There was this narrator, see - I'm a little bored of narrators, have been since Our Town - This one was particularly badly handled. Just before the scene where the aunt the children there is no more food though Setsuko says, "But I'm still hungry!" a table was set up on the side of the stage, and a waitress took the narrator's long order. She brought a tray full of real food out for him - tempura, miso, etc. and my stomach growled watching him dig in. Okay, I get that they're putting the contrast up - back then the children had nothing, nowadays we have plenty. As the scene goes on then, the lights fade on the narrator. But movement from that side of the stage catches my eye a minute later. Unsubtly, he is clearing his tray by handing the food off to a stagehand kneeling there. I'm probably picky, but I thought it was one of the stupidest on-stage moments I've seen in my life. If you must have real food, and if you must have a clean tray by the end of the scene, then don't give your actor more than he can consume during that scene! Don't insult your audience's intelligence like that.
And then, of course, the reason the tray must be empty as the past-children go, "Oh look, there's a man eating in a restaurant in the corner of what was previously our aunt's dining room! Let's ask him for scraps." There is (magically!) only one thing left, but the so-kind narrator hands it over. "What's this food, I've never seen anything like it!" Setsuko exclaims, ala cheesy commercial once more. "It's - ham. bur. GU," the narrator explains. Okay, there's a way having the two different time-lines overlap could be pertinent and interesting. Setting up entire scenes for the sake of a facetious little pun is not one of them. The whole narrator part felt over-stressed, actually - it seemed like they were trying to force emotional attachment to a character that is really nothing but a statistics reader, in order to make the Huge Reveal (which wasn't that surprising, he's just the kid of someone they met) at the end have more meaning (which it doesn't).
His blocking was terrible - several times he walked straight in front of the main scene, other times he pointlessly hovered over a character's shoulder as though to pump up our interest. "Ooh, look, I'm interested! You should be too!" "You're distracting," I thought, "Go away." Though I know it was more the director's fault than the actor's, I was seriously annoyed with him by the time bows came and - after the rest of the cast had left - he took a bow by himself! I've only known that to be done when a show has a serious major star, someone who spends every second on stage, sweating blood. I had a vicious bit of satisfaction that my students didn't realize they were supposed to still be clapping and had faded away while he tried to maintain his limelight.
Which is to say, I thought he was an unnecessary addition to a story that just needs a brother and a sister. It reminded me of what Libby Gelman-Waxner said about the Titanic movie:
"According to Hollywood logic, none of the actual Titanic passengers was interesting enough, so the writer-director had to invent a Romeo and Juliet-style fictional couple to heat up the catastrophe. This seems a tiny bit like giving Anne Frank a wacky best friend, to perk up that attic."
This has been a rather long and rambling post. In brief: on the whole, good story, music, and actors - direction could be improved.
I asked my students what they thought. "I cried," the girls said. The boys thought it was "So-so."