Japan Revisits Wartime Politics the Show `Ri Koran' Examines the Japanese Occupation of Manchuria in the 1930s. TOKYO MUSICAL

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THEATER director Keita Asari, noted mainly for staging Western musicals, has chosen to walk the edge of a sword with his new musical about Japan's occupation of Chinese Manchuria in the 1930s.

The play, entitled "Ri Koran," follows the tragic tale of a real Japanese woman who grew up as a Chinese, adopted the Chinese name Ri Koran, and became famous singing songs that praised Manchuria. The Japanese government hoped the songs would be effective as propaganda, and would persuade Japanese to emigrate to the newly won territory.

This original musical, set amid a turbulent time in Asia's history, comes two years after the passing of Emperor Hirohito, whose role in World War II remains controversial. Fearing the wrath of right-wing groups, few Japanese dare to call attention to Japan's wartime atrocities.

"The death of the Emperor has broken the taboo, enabling a closer look at what had happened during that era," says Mr. Asari, president and director of Tokyo's Shiki Theatrical Company.

Asari is a close associate of leading Japanese politicians, including former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, and serves on various governmental advisory committees. He says that former Prime Minister Noburo Takeshita, presently Japan's political kingpin, missed becoming a kamikaze pilot by being one year too young.

"He survived because by the time his turn came up, there were no more planes left," says Asari.

Shiki is a leading theater company in Japan, employing about 450 people, half of them actors. Asari and nine others established the company in 1953, after being inspired by the Western theaters established by French playwrights Jean Giraudoux and Jean Anouilh.

Asari's vision was to develop a new school of theater in Japan. The Shiki produces more than a thousand plays and musicals yearly, including some for children, and such Western musicals as "Jesus Christ Superstar," "Phantom of the Opera," "Chorus Line," and "West Side Story." Its biggest success continues to be "Cats" with over 1,800 performances thus far.

In his most recent production, Asari took extreme caution not to give the play an ideological slant, and he avoided any reference to the Emperor. "I didn't intend to make `Ri Koran' into an antiwar play," he states, "but I wanted to tell the younger generation about the tragedy that Asia went through." Young Japanese, he says, do not know much about Japan's role during the war years.

Ri Koran, whose Japanese name is Yoshiko Yamaguchi, now serves as a member of Japan's parliament. Born in Manchuria, she was adopted by a Chinese family and became a big hit through the Manchurian Cinema Association, a company set up by Japan for propaganda purposes. …