With two red braids hanging from her straw hat, Anne of Green Gables may just be the most recognisable ginger-haired girl in the world. But in Japan, the orphan from Prince Edward Island is more than just a quaint Canadian import – she’s a national heroine.
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.
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.
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.
Here is some footage from a visit to the School of Green Gables in Okayama, Japan, about three hours by bullet train to the southwest of Tokyo.
I’d heard about the “Anne of Green Gables School of Nursing” for years, but I never knew how real it was or if it even still existed. It’s mentioned on the PEI government website in a jokey way: “There’s even an Anne of Green Gables School of Nursing!” But they give no details about what it is or where, or the history of it or anything. It was actually a little difficult to find.
However, we got the warmest reception imaginable when we visited, and found that it’s a school with an excellent reputation that turns out very highly sought after students. What we also found was that it had an atmosphere of incredible warmth and friendliness. All the students we spoke to commented on this, and explained how much they appreciated that it was different from other hospital care training facilities. You can tell it’s unique just looking at the buildings and the layout, which are very different from typical Japanese buildings.
I was lucky to catch some footage of an instructor mid-speech to her students, that I was later told ran along the lines of, “This is your last chance to go out into the world and make a difference.” An inspiring speech, basically.
This footage gives you a rough idea what the place looks like. In addition, for the full documentary, we’ve got interviews with the school’s director, in which he goes into some detail about the ethos of the school, which is directly inspired by L.M. Montgomery’s book, and also about the history of Anne’s place in Japanese culture. And we’ve got an interview with a couple of students, who very much affirmed that Anne cemented their attraction to the school.
What’s interesting is that the Anne factor isn’t treated as some kind of novelty. It’s integral to the students’ education and even raises the stakes for them professionally. They’re here to live up to a standard, a standard that has been set very high by the example of Anne herself. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I arrived at the school, but I ended up finding the whole experience quite moving.
The school’s director showed me a certificate of congratulations given to the school in 1992 by Prince Edward Island’s Minister of Tourism and Parks, Gordon MacInnis. It reads, “We present to The Okayama School of Welfare the affectionate nickname of ‘The School of Green Gables’. Warmheartedly caring for others – the basic concept of ‘welfare’ – is a central theme of Anne’s story. We wish your students success, and hope they will strive to be happy and to make others happy, in the true spirit of ‘Anne of Green Gables’.”
For a long time, the school sent an annual delegation to Prince Edward Island to work in care facilities and to engage in a cultural exchange. Then they started going every second year and then less and less frequently. Basically, there’s not much reciprocal exchange from the PEI side. I found this to be true, too, in Hokkaido, as a group of young kids were getting ready to go to PEI as a group. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime trip. And it’s strange that there isn’t much interest coming back the other way. I’m not sure why that’s the case, exactly. But the interest on the Japanese side is sincere and enthusiastic.
On the face of it, you could say that since the school was inspired directly by our novel and our culture, that we’ve set a standard that they’re trying to live up to. But if anything, I’d say the situation is now reversed and that the School of Green Gables sets a high standard for us.
Here is some footage that I will not end up using in my documentary (or not all of it, anyway). I won’t be using it mainly because of its length, but also because I’m not using a tripod. This shot is an almost 14-minute long stroll through Canadian World, a theme park in Ashibetsu, on the island of Hokkaido in northern Japan. If you can’t visit, consider this a virtual visit.
We start at the front gate, which is a replica of the Kensington railway station on Prince Edward Island.
What you might notice, first of all, is the gentle piano music piped in by speakers all through the park. At certain points, if you’re between speakers, the music has an echo on it and almost a disjointed quality as you travel closer to the next speaker and the sound comes into focus. The next thing you might notice is that we are alone in the park. There is a groundskeeper, and I did speak with him, but it’s actually quite a big park and he was probably down by the lake while I was shooting this. You’ll notice, as well, that he keeps the place in immaculate shape, even though there are essentially no visitors. I spent three days here, and saw a total of two lone visitors and one family.
So, now we walk down the central path, towards a clock tower that’s identified as being from Saint John. This is “Canadian World”, so there has to be some representation of something other than Prince Edward Island in it. I’m guessing this is the clock tower in front of the Market Square mall complex. I don’t recognise it. And yet it looks familiar.
In any case, this is an unedited shot. I thought, “I’ll just walk through and let the camera run and see what happens.” If you get bored and want to skip to the end, go ahead. But it’s here, just in case you wanted to see what it’s like to walk through the place.
After the clock tower, we walk for a few minutes down to the Green Gables house, which is a scale reproduction of the Green Gables house in Cavendish, Prince Edward Island. I cannot communicate how strange an experience it is to walk up to this house, because it’s a place I’m extremely familiar with. Again, it’s empty. The music is still being piped through, in case someone should visit.
Seeing this house, in Japan on the other side of the world, gave me an impression of something like vertigo or feeling like I’m in a dream that resembles my own life, but some dream version of my life. Imagine one day waking up and starting your day, to discover that everything is almost the same but kind of different at the same time. Or that you’ve become a giant insect. You walk down streets that are familiar, but people are speaking a different language. You feel at home, but everything is just a little off. For me, experiencing this park felt a lot like waking up in The Village, the fictional town in the TV show The Prisoner. The thing is, I often feel like I’m in that show. But it is pretty rare to actually walk through a park that’s a fairly good replica of your own experience, with nice, calming music playing through discreetly placed speakers, and not another living person in sight. It wasn’t as extreme as, say, a scene out of Inception, in which the earth folds in on itself leaving you standing in front of this house on the other side of the world. But it’s a little like that.
Both this house and the original that it’s based on are symbols. On Prince Edward Island, it’s a house in which no people live, but has been staged as an example of the type of house that Matthew and Marilla would have lived in if they had not been fictional characters. It’s the type of house that Lucy Maud might have been inspired by, and therefore close enough to use for display purposes.
Anyway, symbol or not, imagine walking into and through a house that you’re very familiar with (your childhood home, let’s say), in a landscape that is sort of similar to something that you already know, but in Japan. Or if you’re already in Japan, try it in reverse. That is what it’s like walking up to and through the Green Gables house in Ashibetsu.
Places can mean a great deal to our identities. Something that feels significant to you can be replicated in another part of the world and experienced almost as if it were the original. Which feels strange to say, because the original is already a replica. Yes, this is confusing.
In any case, have fun taking this walking tour of Canadian World. Only small parts of this footage will make it in to the final work. But it’s here for you to take a stroll through any time you feel like visiting.