Forgiveness: Why isn’t it more moving?

publicity photo for Forgiveness

Yoshie Bancroft and Kevin Takahide Lee (Photo by Moonrider Productions)

Considering the emotional nature of the material — the internment of Japanese Canadians during World War II and the abuse of prisoners of war in Japanese prison camps — Forgiveness falls surprisingly flat.

Playwright Hiro Kanagawa’s stage adaptation is drawn from Mark Sakamoto’s memoir. The story is about Sakamoto’s grandmother Mitsue, a Vancouverite who was forced to labour with her family on a sugar beet farm in Alberta, and his grandfather Ralph from Québec’s Magdalen Islands, who spent most of the war in ruthlessly cruel POW camps.

According to the GoodReads website, Forgiveness is 272 pages long. Maybe that makes it unadaptable — at least without cutting more material. In his stage version, Kanagawa has crammed in so many plot points that, even with an almost three-hour running time, the play feels frantic, like it’s skittering across the surface of a deeper story. Director Stafford Arima’s loud, busy production exacerbates the problem.

Too many scenes feel more like shorthand than nuanced exchanges. When Mitsue is a teenager and her best friend Miyoko briefly flirts with Mitsue’s brother Pat, the scene is so rushed and so pushed that, to get the romantic point across, meek Miyoko suddenly turns into Jessica Rabbit and Pat the cartoon version of a hot bad boy, a two-dimensional Jimmy Dean.

Meanwhile, in the tiny community of Grindstone on the Magdalen Islands, Ralph’s father is drunk and quickly getting drunker. He dances a merry little jig, then starts smacking family members across the face. He calls Ralph a sack of shit. This is serious stuff but, because it happens so quickly, it doesn’t rise above the level of cliché: we get the basic dynamic, but there’s so little specificity or development that it lacks depth.

One thing the script does get right is the shock of the internment. I’ve long been aware of the theft of the Japanese shipping fleet, for instance, but I’ve always been looking back on it from this side of history. Forgiveness gives us the opportunity to experience that crime as a surprise: when Mitsue’s dad comes home from the docks and says, “They’re taking our boats,” it’s astonishing. How could such a thing happen to Canadian citizens?

That sense of surprise and confusion continues as Mitsue and her family are packed into livestock pens at the PNE, then shipped off to Alberta, never knowing what’s going to happen next and never finding an answer that honours their humanity.

Director Arima has decided to go big with all of this. Pam Johnson’s set consists of huge sliding panels that look like they’re made out of corrugated metal. Video designer and animator Cindy Mochizuki and projection designer Sammy Chien (of Chimerik) throw all sorts of huge imagery onto these panels. In a way, it’s gratifying to see this level of stylistic daring at the Arts Club, but I wish it had been used more judiciously. As it is, the visual onslaught adds to the general sense of overload. To absorb emotionally challenging material, audience members need space; because this production offers so little room for reflection, because it gets giddy instead about its capacity to create spectacle, it mutes the story’s emotional impact.

Despite the declamatory acting style established by Arima, there’s some admirable work from the cast. Yoshie Bancroft is emotionally resourceful as Mitsue, and Manami Hara brings welcome groundedness to the role of Mitsue’s mother Tomi. Jovanni Sy brings effectively insinuating intelligence to Kato, the sadistic commander of the Japanese POW camp. And I was impressed by the openhearted fulness of Kevin Takahide Lee’s portrait of the memoirist’s grandfather, Hideo Sakamoto. Griffin Cork does a fine job of inhabitingRalph.

These are important stories. I wish Forgiveness, the stage play, was telling them better.

FORGIVENESS adapted by Hiro Kanagawa from Mark Sakamoto’s memoir.  Directed by Stafford Arima. Co-produced by the Arts Club Theatre and Theatre Calgary. At the Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage on Thursday, January 19, where it continues until February 12. Vancouver tickets. Running at Theatre Calgary March 11 to April 1. Calgary tickets

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About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

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