Stewart Parker died too soon. He was only 47 and his life was dogged by cancer, yet his plays always seem to be brimming over with life. Perhaps his best known stage play is Spokesong (1975) but he was also prolific on radio and television. His stage and TV scripts are published, the radio plays are not, though I would certainly argue that The Kamikaze Ground Staff Reunion Dinner (1979) is second only to Spokesong in general cultural awareness. I certainly knew he had written a radio play linking the words ‘Kamikaze’ and ‘Reunion’ before tracking down The Best Radio Plays of 1980 (Eyre Methuen/BBC). I remember people discussing the oxymoron at the time.
Thirty-five years on, the ground crew from Mabalacat airbase gather for their annual reunion. Among them, the airline pilot Tokkotai, the prosperous dentist Makoto, bakery owner Shushin, insurance salesman Kamiwashi and taxi driver Shimpu. They drink, they toast the dead, they remember the gilded youths who sacrificed themselves for the honour of their country. As they drink, cracks appear in their golden memories – how the kamikaze pilots looked down on insignificant grease monkeys, how some came back, how some never wanted to go in the first place. Most of all, they question if any of it was worthwhile. They look at Japan now, subsumed by the Western capitalism, rent by strikes and student protest. They bemoan their own dull existence.
“I don’t know,” Shushin complains to his mistress Tomishita, “all you hear day in day out is differentials, demarcation, incentive bonuses, squabble, squabble,squabble. There was none of that when we had a war to fight.”
These are middleaged men on the verge of retirement. Their meaningful lives are drawing to a close. But, by God, some of us are still capable of the grand gesture!
The beauty of it is that Parker has written a comedy. His second stroke of genius is that he has avoided all attempts at cod-Japanese. Only the cultural context is authentic. Otherwise these are universal stereotypes – the ultra-conservative airline pilot, the depressed taxi driver, the fly salesman – played by English radio actors. Makoto is played by John le Mesurier, for goodness sake. He even talks like John le Mesurier. Parker also makes great use of radio’s malleability. He glides from scene to scene, makes extensive use of contextual sound (dentist’s drills, air traffic control techno-babble) and in the penultimate scene, when Tokkotai and Shimpu are flying an old aero club biplane, Shimpu opens the cockpit hatch and sticks his head out to be sick. That’s a moment that would never convince on TV or film but on radio can be pictured in all its glory.
Unusually, exceptionally, I was able to track down the original recording online. It’s almost certainly unauthorised, possibly pirated. Nonetheless, here it is:
For once we are able to compare what appears on the page with what listeners actually heard on Radio 3 on December 16 1979.
For starters, director Robert Cooper chose to use the first scene – Makoto drilling some poor devil’s teeth as he reminisces – as a prologue. The device works well, ending with le Mesurier musing: “yes, with the Special Attack Force … you know, the Kamikazes … (the patient shrieks.) Easy…” Unfortunately there follows hideous early digital Japanese music. Fair enough, it sets the period of the production and indeed the action (i.e. 1979) but the play isn’t really about the present. The music is used repeatedly. It never works. Cooper would have done better to stick with Parker’s gentle elision. The end music is the exception. I don’t know it, but it’s martial, gung-ho male-voice choir and it emphasises the irony of the ending.
Le Mesurier and Ronald Baddiley (Tokkotai) are very English, but Graham Crowden (Shushin) and Maureen Beattie (his lover Miss Tomishita) are unabashedly Scottish. Harry Towb (Kamiwashi) was actually from Belfast but usually played American and here accentuates his Jewish notes. Ronald Herdman plays Shimpu as a whining nasal South Londoner. Why not? Japan, like the UK, is a confederacy of islands and regions.
The scenes in the function room fail to resolve the question raised by the text: how big is this gathering? Is it one table, a big table, or just our main characters? It’s not a fatal flaw but a producer should have a view. It is important in radio to anchor ‘hard’ settings as springboards for the more freeform or imaginative passages. Here the acoustic is the deadest of dead.
The biplane, on the other hand, is triumphantly realised. Nothing works better on radio than an engine cutting out. Banzai!