Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Farewell, Gen-san!

Kiyokazu Yamamoto, one of the founding members of Black Tent Theater, Japan, dear dear friend, passed away last week, succumbing to lung cancer. Three days ago, PETA gave him a small tribute. This is my short contribution. I had a difficult time reading it to the small audience since I couldn’t fight back my tears. I’m still grieving. The sadness comes in small waves. Gen-san will be missed terribly.

When I first met Gen-san in 1981, I never thought it would turn into a friendship that would last for 30 years. I remember many things about him. I was 21 years old then and he was the jolly, funny, middle-aged, sweet-toothed Papa Gen as we called him then.

I got to know him better later in 1996 when he decided to come over to Manila, one day. He surprised us. He suddenly appeared at the PETA house (then in Lantana, Cubao). He said he was on vacation. The other members of Black Tent Theater (BTT) were in Avignon playing Woyzeck then. And he said he just wanted to explore possibilities of a collaboration with PETA. That one visit opened a whole chapter of the continuing bond between PETA and BTT that grew into a deep friendship. That chapter culminated in a fabulous collaborative production of Romeo and Juliet—which for me, even today, was the best collaborative project I have ever been involved in. Not only because of the fantastic rehearsal process that we were discovering along the way, but because of the talent, the fun, the learning we all shared. Papa Gen’s lone visit to PETA house in Lantana was the key to this wonderful experience.

Much of the production process of Romeo and Juliet was documented in still pictures, video, etc.

However, what couldn’t be documented was the time Gen and I spent writing the scenario in his hideaway, a small town by a lake, away from Tokyo, where he taught me how to fish, and, in between our scribbling of the scenario of the play, he would tell me how he loved fishing in Canada, and enumerated all the fish he had caught from trout to bass, distinguishing one catch from another. And that despite all the fish that he knew—he would still end up craving for samma. And while we finished eating the fish we caught that afternoon, we talked about the possible endings to our Romeo and Juliet, while dishing up edamame beans as he had his beer.

What wasn't documented was, on the way home, Gen took me to a small restaurant and asked if I ever tasted black natto. And had me taste them and waiting for me to throw up and take back all I’ve said about how much I loved it. And how his eyes widened in silly admiration when I finished the serving.

What wasn’t caught on video was when one time he asked me how it felt to be gay. That maybe he might want to try becoming one, now that he was old and thought that having sex didn’t make that much of a difference whether it was with a woman or a man. And I remember laughing and asking if probably it was too late for him to do that… and then slowly wondering if he was serious but never got to push that issue any further.

What wasn’t caught on video was when he took us one night in Saito’s pad and we had a Kurosawa movie marathon while he annotated his own reviews of the early works of this great man. When he introduced me to the stories of Kenji Miyazawa, and told me why he preferred Kawabata to Mishima. And I remember one time asking him why many great Japanese writers had attempted suicide—I can’t remember what his explanation was anymore. And I remember him handing me a Margaret Atwood novel which he couldn’t bother to read since it was in English. Papa Gen, I read it. I would have wanted to tell you the story. But it doesn’t really matter. And anyway it wasn’t as great as your little stories about food, sweets, fish, literature, theater, film, Ed McBain, your wife Napa and your daughter Aya-chan, your wonder and fascination about new things you’ve learned about the Philippines, your commitment to your art, so many things you got interested in, so many things you wanted to talk about—and we did talk about it while you juggled with the handful of English you knew. And even if we didn’t understand each other many times, it didn’t matter as long as we understood each other here in our hearts. It was the company we had, knowing that no matter what we said we knew we weren’t going to hurt each other because we cared for each other, because that’s the way friends really are.

What wasn’t caught on video was your generosity. And I remember how much you appreciated it when we reciprocated that generosity. How much you enjoyed eating Philippine chicken and eggs saying how much they tasted better than those in Japan. How much you loved eating in Emerald Restaurant and the other chinese restaurants I brought you to.

The last time I saw Gen was when suddenly, again, he appeared at the PETA office, this time here in this building (Eymard Drive). Everyone was asking what brought you here, Gen. And like before, you said nothing really. That you were on vacation, again. No agenda. You had this new Canon digital SLR camera. And I remember you showing me all the pictures you took with it. And you handed me the copy of the play, Kitchen Medea—a monologue you wrote which Yoshi directed and Mailes acted for the Virgin Labfest. We kept asking what you wanted to do during this vacation—and you answered vaguely. That you just wanted to spend time with friends.

It was only after you left that we learned why. It was really to say farewell, for you sensed that you might never see us again. It was better we saw you happy, you probably thought. It was better we remembered you as the same jolly and gentle Papa Gen whose great great mind you always tried disguising with an innocent silliness. So Gen, that’s how I will always remember you. This last lone trip you made to Manila to visit us, just to see us one last time, was your gallant way of goodbye. Even up to the end, Papa Gen, you were such a gracious, gracious man. With deep respect and lots of hugs and kisses.

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