Answers in War: interview with the cast and crew of No-No Boy
The stage adaptation of John Okada's No-No Boy, written by Ken Narasaki and directed by Alberto Isaac, plays in Santa Monica, California from March 26 to April 18.
by Ada Tseng
Date Published: 04/02/02
Over the years, there has been so much interest in adapting the 1957 landmark Japanese American novel No-No Boy into a film, that author John Okada's widow was sick of being approached about it.
"We actually tried to get the rights ten years ago," says Ken Narasaki, writer of the 2010 No-No Boy stage adapation. "But his widow was sort of fed up: 'You guys keep calling and bothering me, and you never do anything! Just leave me alone!'" Narasaki laughs at the memory, holding his hands up in mock surrender. "We're just trying to make a play! Sorry!"
Eight years later in 2008, after Narasaki and their artistic team (which include Sharon Omi, Alberto Isaac, Emily Kuroda, and others) had completed a successful run of their play Innocent When You Dream, Narasaki and Omi decided to try again. By that time, the University of Washington Press owned the rights to No-No Boy.
"We said, 'We don't want the film rights. We just want the stage rights,'" says Narasaki. "And they said, 'Oh, no one's ever asked us for that before. How about $1000?''" Narasaki laughs. "And we said, 'How about less?' You know, cause we're a non-profit, mom-and-pop organization. So they ended up giving it to us for about a dollar."
That was the beginning of a two year journey to get No-No Boy onto the stage.
The term "no-no boy" refers to the loyalty oath that was given to Japanese Americans in the internment camps during World War II. Interned Japanese Americans were asked two questions: whether they were willing to serve in the US armed forces and whether they swore unqualified allegiance to the US during wartime. The "no-no boys" were the ones who answered "No" to both questions, angry that the US government expected them to fight on behalf of a country that had stripped their entire community of their constitutional rights. Most of the No-No Boys were moved to Tule Lake, where they were segregated for the rest of the war.
This stance caused a rift between the No-No Boys/draft resisters and the Japanese Americans veterans who believed answering "No" to these questions and refusing to fight was the cowardly thing to do -- that it gave the US government more reason to distrust their community.
"The veteran side -- the acclaim of the [all-Japanese American] 442 [Infantry Regiment] -- is more often told," actor Chris Tashima (Eto, Jun) explains, "Whereas, the No-Nos were shamed into silence. We didn't really get a chance to hear much about them, which is why the novel is so progressive and amazing, especially for its time."
Naraski's play starts where Okada's book begins: it's 1946, and the main character Ichiro is returning to his hometown of Seattle. He had just come from prison where he was sent for refusing to sign up for the draft. Ichiro is filled with self-loathing and doubt over the decisions he's made, and he's antagonized by many of his peers, including his little brother Taro, who consider him a traitor. Later, he's reunited with his friends Freddie, one a No-No Boy who just wants to drown his troubles in sex and booze, and Kenji, a veteran who has made peace with their differences. Kenji introduces him to Emi, a side character in Okada's novel who has been brought to the forefront of Narasaki's play. Emi becomes the only person who can provide Ichiro hope for redemption.
The No-No Boy producers assembled a talented group of Japanese American actors to fill these roles: Robert Wu as Ichiro, Keiko Agena as Emi, Sab Shimono as Pa, Sharon Omi as Ma, Jared Asato as Taro, John Miyasaki as Ralphie, Greg Watanabe as Kenji, Chris Tashima as Eto and Jun, and Emily Kuroda in various roles.
"One of the things I love about John Okada's book is that there's a whole spectrum of characters that represent all kinds of different individual reactions to what happened during the war," says Narasaki, "The characters are so vital, so alive. They're jumping out of their skin, they're so alive, and I loved them for that. So much Asian American literature is about how much we repress -- and that's there in the book too -- but these guys are live wires, so hungry to latch onto something that makes sense to them. It's this hunger for a life which I think is the reason that so many people fall in love with this book."
However, when No-No Boy was first published, both sides -- the veterans and resisters -- hated the book equally. Narasaki takes this as a sign that Okada got it right.
"The vets believed that he was trying to make heroes out of the No-No Boys," says Narasaki. "And the No-No Boys and the draft resisters get pissed at the book, because they say, 'Why are these people are so filled with self loathing? I'm proud of what I did!'
"But if you look at the book," Narasaki continues, "it's neither of those things. I think one of the things that [director] Alberto's been doing with this play and what the actors have been able to bring out -- how complicated that world really was."
"You have to remember that this was World War II," says Tashima. "Everybody was behind the war and patriotic. To even think about resisting or refusing to serve was unheard of -- let alone from a Japanese American and someone who was in camp. I cannot begin to guess the amount of pressure you'd face, especially being 17-18 years old. But these guys said, 'Wait a minute, this isn't right.'"
"My grandfather was in Manzanar," says actor John Miyasaki (Freddie), "so when I first heard about the 442 when I was really young, around 7 or 10, I asked him, 'How come you weren't in the 442? And my grandfather said, 'There's no way I'd be in the 442. There's no way I'd fight for a country who took everything away from us. And he looked at me and smiled, kind of like 'How could you ask me that question?' And I really never understood. I still don't know if I understand, but I'm hoping to find some of those answers for myself."
"I grew up in Hawaii," says actor Jared Asato (Taro), "and all the stories were from my grandpa and the people who had gone to war -- their perspective. So for me, to learn about all these other things that had happened was very eye-opening."
Adapting the novel into a play had many challenges: juggling multiple storylines, deciding which characters to focus on, moving in and out of multiple places, and getting out of Ichiro's head, where much of the book takes place.
"To be honest, when I read the book, I thought, 'This will be tough to put on the stage,'" says actor Robert Wu (Ichiro). "I couldn't see it initially, but they're doing some amazing things, working with the set designer [Alan E. Muraoka] to create the different environments. I'm impressed with how it's come together."
"Because there are so many locations, the set will be very simple and representational, but big," says Narasaki. "A lot of the worlds that we're going to create are going to be through sound and light. We're going to cover a lot of space, and the design element is going to be very important."
It was also important to maintain a balance: taking some creative liberties with the script in order to make the story more stage-worthy, while still maintaining the spirit of the original novel.
"Another nice thing that's in the play is the way Ken inserted the Momotaro story," says actor Keiko Agena (Emi). In the Japanese fairy tale, Momotaro the Peach Boy meets a dog, a monkey, and a pheasant, and they all have to work together in order to defeat the demons. The story is mentioned in Okada's book, but Narasaki threaded it throughout the entire play to act as a metaphor for Ichiro's psychological journey.
Miyasaki agrees, "It's really is the Goldilocks, the Jack and the Beanstalk of our culture. Almost every JA [Japanese American] kid knows that story, and I was really touched by that."
"There's a million different versions of the story," says Narasaki, "but there's one version where, when Momotaro is about to leave on his journey, he tells his parents, 'Thank you for raising me.' And the mother says, 'A parent's duty is to the child, the child's duty is to the parents.' And this is another thing that comes up in this play a lot: what are these duties and how far do you have to take them? There were just so many things about the story that was perfect for the play."
For the actors, one of the biggest challenges was re-creating a time period that was so drastically different than anything they had experienced themselves.
"A lot of us have relatives that are of that period or of that experience," says Miyasaki, "but trying to be in that late 40s, early 50s period -- the language, the dress, and even the interactions are so different. As an Asian American, you hardly get to go out for a '40s play or a period piece, period. It's exciting, but it's very challenging."
Tashima, a writer/director himself who has spent a lot of time looking at this history for other projects, was instrumental in helping the actors get into character.
"It's nice because there is so much material for us to draw from," Tashima says, "Documentary films, books, photographs. There's a lot of interviews of these guys. Some of them go back 20 years, so they're in their 60s, 70s, 80s by now, but at least you can get a sense of their personality, what they had inside, what they were fighting for."
Although the No-No Boy cast and crew seem to be having fun (most of them have worked together previously and known each other for years), they are very aware of the enormity of the project they've taken on. They are very aware of the controversy that still surrounds No-No Boy, especially amongst the aging generation of Japanese Americans, some of whom are still not interested in exploring their painful past.
"When we did the last show, Innocent When You Dream, I played the No-No Boy character," says Miyasaki, "We'd have all these people come in, and I didn't know if they were vets, but it felt like they were vets, a lot nisseis that were of that age. After the show, there'd be food and most of the time people would go talk in the lobby, but no one would talk to me because I was that character. Also, [jokes] because I led an alternative lifestyle, but mostly I think it was because I played the No-No Boy character."
"It's a good thing is that there's a lot riding on the play," says Tashima, "because it's such an important work and because these issues remain in our community. They haven't really been addressed, because each side is hesitant, and they're all moving on in their years. So hopefully, it will cause a big stir. The hardest thing will be getting those who need to hear it, into the house to see the play, because right away, they're gonna think, 'I don't want to see a play about No-No Boys. Hell no, I'm not going to go see that.'"
"But there may be one or two that might get dragged into it, or be curious, or be willing to hear," Tashima continues, "And hopefully, they'll come. Maybe curiosity will get the best of them, maybe it's been enough years. I'm hearing very interesting stories, where a vet will say something that you never thought you'd hear them say: just some form of acknowledgement of what the resisters did. And that's my hope. It's such a shame that so many people are taking this to their graves with some form of regret, so here's an opportunity for something to happen."
No-No Boy had its world premiere on March 27, 2010, and it continues at the Miles Memorial Playhouse in Santa Monica until April 18.
For more information, go to their official website and blog. Tickets are selling out, and an extra Sunday night show has been added on April 11th at 7pm, where John Miyasaki will be playing Ichiro and Mike Hagiwara will be playing Freddie.