A Father Remembered

Reviewed by Josephine Lee

Empire of the Son, which depicts the relationship between a Japanese Canadian son and his immigrant father, is utterly engrossing and uniquely personal; Tetsuro Shigematsu’s one-man play thankfully defies typecasting even while it explores familiar issues of cultural difference, intergenerational relationship, and personal loss.

Shigematsu developed his play through a two-year process with the Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre (VACT) and it went from an award-winning, sold-out run in 2015 to a national tour to this print version. The play focuses on Shigematsu’s relationship with his father Akira, who moved to London as a BBC producer/announcer, and then to Canada, where he became a radio host for the CBC. During his father’s declining years, Shigematsu was inspired to collect and share his family history; a former radio host for the CBC’s The Roundup, he notes parallels between his father’s work and his own. In her introduction, VACT artistic director Donna Yamamoto recalls that the initial production of Empire of the Son, Shigematsu’s first play, was complicated by his commitment to keeping it as factually accurate and up to date as possible. Even as the play was under development, Akira Shigematsu’s medical conditions were worsening, and he died just eighteen days before the show opened.

Obviously, the print version cannot fully capture the impact of the theatrical production. The stage effects created by a live video feed—Shigematsu’s fingers transformed into skateboarding and ice-skating legs, injecting cream into an aquarium filled with water to emulate the bombing of Hiroshima—can only be suggested. Likewise, the deft use of audio clips from past radio broadcasts and personal interviews can only be imagined as voices. Most regrettably, Shigematsu is not present in the flesh to remind us of how much a stage production relies on the body’s power to signify complex physical, emotional, and philosophical states. Shigematsu’s toned, shadowboxing physique poignantly contrasts with descriptions of his father’s weakening frame, and he reflects on the “terrible beauty of life”: “I have reached the peak of my physical powers during the very season my father has begun to fall.”

Despite the limitations of print, the theatrical production is lovingly reconstructed with family photographs and careful stage directions that make the collaborative nature of both the narrative and its theatrical telling apparent. Shigematsu is a solo performer but he is never alone, with family members (particularly a memorable trio of sisters) and kind strangers populating his story. A young undertaker, for instance, provides the final motif for the play’s closing meditation when he says that in his first few months of work he learns to appreciate rain: “Just being able to feel it on my skin because—these bodies I carry out—can’t.” And the printed version does make it possible to reread Shigematsu’s extraordinarily powerful language, which is in turns wryly humorous, poetic, and gut-wrenching. The exquisite moments of his closing monologue, which builds on the undertaker’s allusion, are particularly worth savouring:

And one day, the water that is you, will not be you. But if you were loved, maybe you will be the tears of someone who weeps for you. Not because they’re crying, but because they’re laughing so hard at the memory of how pathetic you looked, that time you got caught in the rain. And as they dab their cheeks, they’ll stop to wonder, are you in heaven? When in fact you have never been so near.

Due to his father’s death, Shigematsu’s script was finalized only days before the play opened, and its monologues measure out his grief in carefully managed rituals of spoken loss, both public and private. Every self-respecting Japanese man, Shigematsu tells us at the opening, has a black suit with two ties: a white one for weddings, and a black one for funerals. He talks about his failures both to communicate his feelings of love to his father and to cry at the funeral. By the play’s end, Shigematsu has donned the black tie and his words resolve into tears: if not his, then ours.

This review “A Father Remembered” originally appeared in Literary History. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 233 (Summer 2017): 162-163.

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