By Ryo Iwashita / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterMAEBASHI — A musical trilogy based on the 1945 air raid on Maebashi, the capital of Gunma Prefecture, will stage its final installment next summer.
Produced and performed by Maebashi citizens, the musical series has depicted the tragedies of the war. The first segment, “Hai ni Natta Machi” (The town that became ashes), was about the dreams and loves of female students during World War II, while the second work, “Wo Ai Ni” (I love you), presented the devastation of the air raid through the eyes of a female student from Manchuria.
About 80 residents of Maebashi appeared in both productions, which were well received. They were almost sold out, with about 4,200 tickets purchased overall.
The third and final work is titled “Chingonka” (Requiem). It is set partly in the United States and features people suffering between the two countries, including a man and a woman who are in love but torn apart by the war. It will be staged in August next year.
“Chingonka” takes place between 1940, shortly before the outbreak of the Pacific War, to after the war in 1945.
Koji Akuzawa is a second-generation Japanese-American born in the United States who has spent his boyhood in Maebashi. He falls in love with Kasumi Teshikahara, a Japanese student going to study in the United States.
After returning to Japan, Kasumi becomes an English teacher at a girls’ high school in Maebashi (the predecessor of Maebashi Girls’ High School). The war between Japan and the United States intensifies, and soon Koji joins the U.S. forces and heads to Maebashi aboard a B-29 bomber.
The air raid on Maebashi occurred on the night of Aug. 5, 1945. Firebombs and other weapons are dropped by U.S. bombers, killing a believed 535 people and injuring more than 600. About 11,500 houses, out of the about 20,800 houses in the city, were damaged or destroyed by fire. Maebashi Girls’ High School was also lost in the raid as well.
The three musicals all have independent stories. Their scripts were written by musician Yoichi Shin, 64, who has also directed the series. Shin used to teach music at the girls’ high school and other prefectural high schools.
He taught many young people and became concerned that memories of the war were fading year after year. He has also instructed students on the stage and performing in musicals.
“[Musicals have] the power to appeal to audiences visually and aurally. I think it’s a fitting vehicle to convey the tragedies of war for posterity,” Shin said.
With “Chingonka,” the musical trilogy has extended its setting to the United States. The musical is large in scale, which is part of its appeal, Shin said.
The musical will premiere at the Shoken Gakuen Maebashi Hall in Maebashi on Aug. 3 and 4 next year.
More than 100 people applied when auditions were held for performers in the first two musicals in 2015 and 2017. The city of Maebashi, which is organizing the musicals, will audition people for roles including the protagonist and dancers for “Chingonka.”
Draws on local history
Shin’s first experience in creating a musical production came when he was teaching music at Ota Girls’ High School in Ota, Gunma Prefecture. Students told him they wanted to do a musical, and he decided to write a script for them.
At first he rewrote the scripts of popular musicals such as “The Sound of Music” for high school students. But as he saw the audience excited over the students singing and dancing onstage, his desire grew to let them perform an original work.
The best subject to get students interested was one with relevance to their hometown or local history, which meant it was impossible to avoid the war — wars take people to their limits, Shin thought.
He chose the Maebashi air raid, and interviewed elderly women who used to be students at the bombed high school. Shin also learned that the “balloon bombs” with which the Imperial Japanese Army planned to attack the United States were manufactured at schools, a place of education.
It took him five years to complete “Hai ni Natta Machi.” It was premiered at the All-Japan Senior High School Cultural Festival in 2008 by students of Maebashi Girls’ High School, where he was teaching at the time.
The musical became the first work of the Maebashi air raid trilogy. Shin then spent six months writing the script for “Wo Ai Ni — Maebashi Kushu ni Kieta Ai no Monogatari.”
Local authorities took notice, and in autumn 2013, barely two years before the 70th anniversary of the end of the war, the Maebashi municipal government asked Shin for his cooperation, expressing its willingness to convey the important experiences of wartime through citizen musicals.
Shin readily agreed. He had wanted to fight the fading of wartime memories through art, which can convey messages from various perspectives.