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'Ainu Othello' tackles racism in Japan through Shakespeare's great tragedy

The marriage of an Ainu man and Japanese woman is seen in the play "Ainu Othello" in this photo provided by the Shakespeare Company.

TOKYO -- A theater troupe is taking the tragic events of William Shakespeare's "Othello" and their racist roots and shifting them to the end of Japan's Edo period, with the title character reimagined as an Ainu man and his wife the daughter of a samurai from the Sendai domain.

"Ainu Othello" will hit the stage at International Christian University (ICU) in Mitaka, Tokyo on June 9 and 10. The production is being mounted by the Shakespeare Company, which puts on adaptations of the Bard's plays all set in Japan's northeastern Tohoku region. The script was penned by Tohoku Gakuin University professor Kazumi Shimodate, who is putting on the play with Ainu producer Debo Akibe. The production had its premiere in the city of Sendai in January this year, and the ICU performances will be the play's second.

The original "Othello" tells the story of a black general in the service of Venice, who marries a white woman named Desdemona and is eventually betrayed with tragic consequences by an embittered subordinate called Iago.

According to Shimodate, racism is at the heart of the events of "Othello," one of Shakespeare's four great tragic plays. He decided that if he was going to set "Othello" in the Tohoku region then it would have to be about the Ainu, and so sought out Akibe's help. The production includes a five-person Ainu dance group, and employs Ainu gestures and Ainu-language lines. Meanwhile, the character of Othello's betrayer Iago has been transformed into a half-Ainu, half-Japanese man who is trying to keep his background a secret.

"At the end of the Edo period (1603-1868), the Sendai domain had been tasked with securing the north, and so deepened its ties with the Ainu," said Shimodate. "It was a different time than Shakespeare's period, and I wanted to raise the complex and difficult-to-unravel issue of modern racism."

"Ainu Othello" will start at 4:30 p.m. on June 9, and 1 p.m. on June 10. Regular tickets are 3,000 yen, and reservations can be made by telephone at 0120-240-540 (in Japanese). There will be a talk given by Akibe and Shimodate after each show. The play will move on to Sapporo on July 14, and the producers hope to stage performances in London next summer.

(Japanese original by Reiko Oka, Lifestyle News Department)

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