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An Interview with Producers of “Agake No An” Musical in Tokyo

Recently, the “Anne of Japan” team visited the Tokyo headquarters of S.T. Corporation, which last August produced a touring musical version of “Anne of Green Gables” (Akage No An). The approach is unusual, in that it’s done with very high production values, but it’s staged by the company as a way of “giving back” to its employees. Tickets were raffled off last summer over the internet. Audience members had to apply, and tickets were given away through a lottery sort of process.

The star of the musical, in the role of Anne Shirley, is Japanese pop star Takahashi Ai. She has previous experience with “Akage No An”, also in S.T. Corporation’s touring version of the musical in which played Diana Barry, Anne’s best friend.

We conducted two interviews, one with Takashi Suzuki, the CEO of S.T. Corporation, who obviously holds the story of Anne very close to his heart, and another with the musical’s Director, Sachihiko Toda.

Because the show tours Japan, they use local kids to perform in the musical, to fill all of the supporting roles. So they hold auditions in each city and then rehearse the young actors. In the past, this has resulted in a couple of the kids going on to careers in show business. One of them went on to become a member of AKB48, a sort of Japanese version of the Spice Girls. S.T. Corporation “hires” approximately 13 kids in each town that the musical plays in.

The first time they performed Anne, back in 2003, they had an audience of approximately 14,000, but last year they estimate it was closer to 18,000.

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In his interview, Takashi Suzuki remembers life after the Second World War and the fact that everything, all of the houses and buildings and books, had been destroyed in the flames, so there was nothing to read. As it happened Hanako Muraoka’s translation of “Anne of Green Gables” had just been published. He says he remembers borrowing it from an older girl and was completely moved by its story, because it gave hope and strength to people struggling through difficult times. He also points out that at that time, women were expected to behave in a very reserved way, so the character of Anne provided Japanese women with both an outlet and an example of a new way to behave. He furthermore asserts that you only have to get married to a Japanese woman to understand how they rule society (!).

He then goes on to say that the character of Anne Shirley is still very much in the hearts of that older generation of Japanese women, and that those women are eager to pass their love of Anne along to their daughters and granddaughters, and that he’s noticed them bringing these young women to the shows. The audience for the show is about 75% to 80% women, although in the interview he estimates that it’s 99%.

S.T. Company employees work on the show as a way of interacting with the public in a way that’s completely different from their usual routine of working as salespeople. We informally quizzed a few employees and they confirmed that they love working on the musical, and that for them it’s like organizing a party.

The second interview was with Sachihiko Toda, who acts as the show’s producer/director. He is also CEO of Imagine Musical. He conceptualizes the show, adapts the source material, writes dialogue, auditions the actors and directs, with the help of a small team. He presented the idea of doing Anne as an annual touring musical to S.T. Corporation over 10 years ago.

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He says that the major challenge has been to include local kids in each show, something that was requested by S.T. Co’s Chairman. This was particularly challenging at the time of the tsunami in 2011. At that time they had to cancel the audition which was set in Sendai in March, but instead moved it back to June, to give those kids a chance, too, even though most of them still had no spare sets of clothes or shoes.

Another challenge is the fact that very few Japanese actors are trained for performing in musicals. But he’s confident that the people he does recruit are all very good in their roles.

He says that the show has changed quite a lot over 13 years. At first it consisted mainly of long speeches, almost like Les Miserables, but that now there is a minimum of speech and more singing and dancing. The music and dance routines have a modern feel, but the costumes and the set are faithful to the book.

He said, too, that he has noticed a change in the audience’s demographic, which once consisted mainly of middle aged women, but is getting younger and younger as the years go by. He’s convinced that the show is guaranteed to run indefinitely.

S.T. Company was also were kind enough to give us some supplementary material to use in our documentary, including footage of the rehearsal process. And we’ll be figuring out how to work that in to the longer documentary over the next few months while we collect more material and interviews.

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