A father and son star in Tokyo’s ‘The Son’

The 42-year-old French dramatist Florian Zeller has already had his works staged in more than 45 countries, and been described by The Guardian newspaper as “the most exciting playwright of our time.”

Now his latest play, “The Son,” centered around a fraught father-son relationship, is set to open Aug. 30 at the Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre (TMET) in Ikebukuro — with audiences here uniquely treated to a real father and son playing the leading roles.

An intense dissection of domestic dynamics, this 2018 piece is mainly set in the apartment of the father, Pierre, played by Kenichi Okamoto, who was a vocalist/guitarist in the Johnny’s idol group Otokogumi that split up in 1993. Since then he has immersed himself in theater as an actor and director, picking up many awards along the way. Meanwhile, his co-star is his 28-year-old son Keito Okamoto in the role of Pierre’s teenage son Nicolas in what is his theater debut.

“The Son” is the completion of a family-themed trilogy by Zeller begun with 2010’s “The Mother,” whose middle-aged titular character is beset with feelings her life has no meaning.

The multi award-winning playwright, who is also an acclaimed novelist and director, followed that with “The Father” in 2012. Centered on an old man with dementia, this garnered numerous awards in France, Britain and the United States, and a Best Actor honor in 2019 for Isao Hashizume in Japan’s prestigious Yomiuri Theatre Awards.

In addition, in what was his first big-screen foray, Zeller wrote and directed a 2020 film version of “The Father,” co-winning an Oscar (with Christopher Hampton of “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” fame) for the Best Adapted Screenplay, while its star, Anthony Hopkins, was named Best Actor.

Now, as in 2019 with “The Father,” TMET has again appointed one of the playwright’s closest collaborators, the French director Ladislas Chollat, to present “The Son.”

And rather than being troubled by a real father and son sharing the stage in this edgy drama, Chollat has declared himself “so pleased” that the Okamotos accepted this offer — “despite it being quite risky casting due to their relationship.”

In fact the play depicts the adolescent inner turmoil of Nicolas (Keito Okamoto) with mounting, painful sensitivity. Often totally withdrawn for days, his behavior baffles his divorced parents Pierre (Kenichi Okamoto), a lawyer, and his mother Anne (Mayumi Wakamura), who despair of being able to help the son they adore.

However, despite their best efforts and those of Pierre’s girlfriend Sofia (Kayo Ise), who has just given birth to their baby son, it seems nothing can draw Nicolas out of his gloomy world as he keeps on darkly repeating: “I don’t understand what’s happening to me.”

In his real life, meanwhile, Keito spent most of the last decade in the Johnny’s boy band Hey! Say! JUMP. Then he decided to take a break for two years to study at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York before finally leaving the group in April to switch to theater as his father did before.

When we met recently and I asked how he felt about acting in this intense father-son story with his actual real father, Keito says, “When I became 25, I asked myself what my special attribute was in this competitive entertainment world. As I can speak English fluently, I wanted to use that talent more, but I was kept so busy every day that I had no chance to do so.

“Then I remembered how I’d dreamed when I was young of acting in Shakespeare, launching into Hollywood and being on the stage of the Globe theater.

“I also thought about how, when he was 19, my father worked with the late great theater director Yukio Ninagawa in Juro Kara’s “Taki no Shiraito” (“The Water Magician”) — and even played the main character though it was his first theater role.

“So then I thought about how to make my father proud by achieving things he wasn’t able to — and I sent application forms to drama schools in the United States,” Keito explains, speaking humbly and choosing his words carefully.

In taking that bold step, though, he was actually building on a foundation laid by his father when he sent him off at the age of nine to study in England for five years.

“I didn’t understand why I should live in England by myself, but I suppose my father wanted me to be an international person as he was not able to speak English,” he says.

And though he knows his father did what he thought best for his son it was a tough challenge for the young Keito, whose first foreign words were “I am hungry” in Russian — the language of his host family in the south coast resort of Bournemouth.

But like most young kids transplanted there Keito soon mastered English and began to enjoy his time. As he recalls with a laugh, “Once my school was in the news and the BBC came to report on it, and I was on TV giving my opinion.”

Now he has nothing but thanks for his father’s brave and radical decision, saying that when he was offered this role and first read “The Son” in English, “I felt it was written about me. It was completely astonishing.”

He explained, “My personal situation was similar to that of Nicolas, with parents who divorced and a father remarrying later, so when he was telling Sofia about his darling parents it pierced my heart.

“As Nicolas says to her: ‘You know, when he left my mother took it so badly. She really suffered. And she never stopped saying awful things about him … whereas I worshipped him.

‘I mean, it was as if I’d been chopped in half and from then on I didn’t know what to think anymore.’

“In my case I had no-one to talk to about my parents’ problem as it was such a personal matter. So I thought Nicolas captured my feelings and I could deeply connect with him.”

Despite all this, Keito insists his personal experience remains separate from that on stage, where he faces his father as Nicolas’s father not his own.

“I’m sure I might feel a bit conflicted when I say some of my harsh lines to my father. That will be the same for him, I suppose. But I will act Nicolas using my experience and innermost feelings to make my performance as real as possible and move the audiences.

“Anyhow, me and my father share a really good relationship in real life, so this casting won’t be a risk. Actually, it will probably strengthen our bond.”

***** “The Son” runs Aug. 30–Sept. 12 at the Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre in Ikebukuro. For details, visit www.geigeki.jp.   

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