Let It Dance: A Japanese Dancer Countering Stigma With Personal Memories in WW2 Manchuria

Berlin is quite a peculiar city. Its high entropy with a cultural, ethnic, gender diversity attracts artists from all over the world, letting them co-create the “established-experimental” atmosphere for everybody. In the meantime, Berlin always reminds you of its dark legacy with memorials and museums standing here and there in public spheres.

<Please Cry>, a contemporary dance piece about the memory of a Japanese woman who served as a military nurse in former Manchuria during World War II, was performed at the Dock 11 theater in Berlin Mitte. The piece was planned and starred Megumi Eda, a Japanese ballet dancer from Nagano. Where she grew up sent off a number of nurses to serve for military activities in northern-east China during the war, which was also the case with Megumi’s grandmother.

Megumi says she got her first inspiration when finding a black-and-white photo of her deceased grandmother as an unfamiliar red-cross nurse, which led her to investigate more about those who experienced the similar. During the post-performance discussion with the audience, FAQ were related to war.

We interviewed the dancer Megumi Eda to find out how she constructed this piece full of inspiration out of vague, scattered memories and what it was like to dance the memories.

Related Story:Workshop Report Passing on History in 21st Century

The silence must say something

During the War, more than 30,000 nurses were mobilized from Japan and sent to the battlefields. The Japanese Red Cross nurses who were dispatched to mainland China were one of the groups that took the longest time to repatriate to Japan after 1945, escaping from the invading Soviet soldiers and wandering around the continent while the civil war continued. Testimonies of this ferocious experience are gradually being amassed in recent years, yet Megumi had never heard about it from her grandma’s own mouth.

Megumi:Always giggling, fashionable, stubborn, and fun-loving… my grandmother was always laughing. This made it even more difficult for me to imagine what my grandmother had gone through during the war.

My grandfather was also a military doctor in Manchuria. If they were in Manchuria at the same time, the two must have met there. Apart from her fierce experience as a nurse, she must have had a romantic story to tell. But even that has never been mentioned at all. I set out to create the piece with the thought of perhaps somewhere out there was a grandmother that I was completely unaware of.

When Megumi became intrigued in finding out more about WWII as an adult, it was no longer possible for her to talk to grandmother, who passed away at the age of 65 in a car accident. The beginning of this play begins with a scene in which Megumi speaks directly with her grandmother in heaven on a cell phone.

Screenshot from a Documentation Video © Bickmann & Kolde GbR
Screenshot from a Documentation Video © Bickmann & Kolde GbR

To die or to live, in a moment of dithering

Megumi:My grandmother did not speak anything about it, but she is not an exception. Through research, I found out that those testimonies were also stigmatized and hushed until a certain period of time.

Young female nurses often suffered sexual abuse as they fled for their lives after WWII. Those who had experienced or witnessed such tragic experiences were afraid to speak out due to social taboos, fearing they would never be able to get married.

While researching the testimonies from that time, Megumi came across a testimony that left her a striking impression: At the end of the war, supplies were overwhelmingly in short and she was unable to provide satisfactory medical care. One day, the nurse was instructed by her boss to treat injured soldiers by giving them condensed milk mixed with potassium cyanide to drink. She shudders at this contradiction that is born out of her very mission to save lives.

Megumi:When informed of the defeat, the head nurse gave her the same cyanide, saying, “You should kill yourself with this.” Then she added, “You can cry now.” Before that, she was never allowed to even speak out in weakness. This became my inspiration for title.

In the end, the nurse opted not to take the cyanide and instead chose to survive. That is precisely why her experience has been passed down to us today, and is now connected to the lives of the people of today. The mosaic of life and death in war – this was the driving force behind Megumi’s work.

Megumi:Although the project started because of my grandmother, I tried to focus on the moment when there is a fine line between life and death, wondering how I could express this extreme situation in the form of a dance.

Screenshot from a Documentation Video © Bickmann & Kolde GbR

Megumi presented this work as a Work-in-Progress piece at the Sound Dance Festival in early September. The director of Dock 11 had come to see the festival and like her piece so much that he offered an opportunity to perform there. From there, she worked with Dock Art to complete the piece in less than one month.

Initially, she kept the theme of war out of the picture and kept it abstract. As she discussed with Dock 11, they suggested adding a bit more of a war-related message, which led to a major reworking of the project.

Megumi:I had an idea for a war from the beginning, but I wasn’t going to say it openly.

Some of the guests who came to see the film even said, “I came to see the event because of the topic (of war)”. I was not able to answer questions about my own thoughts on the war very well because I had not prepared them in words beforehand.

But I think it’s a good push when I encounter people like that. I myself am interested in this topic and I think I need to study it.

To dance the untouchables: war and peace on stage

Looking back on her career as a dancer, Megumi says, “My theme has always been war and peace”. It all started about 20 years ago, when she belonged to the Lambert Dance Company in London. She produced a piece titled “8:15,” which was about the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.

Megumi:It was right around the time when the Iraq War started. The idea for the title came from a clock that was in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, which had stopped and was melted down. Four male dancers danced without me, and I thought we had created a good piece.

Megumi’s in-laws are Americans of the generation that actually experienced the war. When she returned to her husband’s hometown, she performed “8:15” in front of them.

Megumi:I was still young and innocent. So I showed to them, saying “Hey look, I made this piece of artwork!” Then, my mother-in-law said something I had not expected.

“We’ve been through a lot, too” , and “You’re not the only victims.”

A scene from “8:15” that Megumi produced | Photo by Megumi Eda

In the midst of her busy life–from giving birth to moving to a new home, to working in a new area–her creative motivation to address war and peace through dance was gradually pushed to the back of her mind.

Megumi:Back then, my energy to produce works of art was gone, as I was already occupied with just making a living, dancing, and being a mother.

However, the first sign of change came when Ms. Mina began new endeavors that included online ballet lessons and streaming her work from her kitchen while she couldn’t leave the house due to the pandemic.

She was invited to an online project as a guest of Yoshiko Chuma, who has been active in the New York postmodern dance scene since the 1980s and is the director of The School of Hard Knocks. There, she had the opportunity to show her former work “8:15.

Megumi:I tried to remember what I had composed at that time, revised it, and presented it, which unexpectedly received a very favorable response. Now that almost 20 years have passed since then, I felt that it would be a good idea to go back to my roots.

A scene from Yoshiko Chuma’s Zoom event; the “8:15” video is also available starting around 23:00

Growing up with an unspoken taboo

Megumi:I have been dancing professionally overseas since I was 16 years old, and I never had any particular interest in the war. I was too absorbed in ballet to see anything else, and I never had the opportunity or time to study it on my own. But I think the sense of strangeness I had since I was a small child, and the experiences in my hometown were the starting point for me to ponder what the war was all about.

Megumi was born in Nagano Prefecture. Near her home was the site of the Matsushiro Imperial Headquarters, where plans were being made to secretly move the emperor and major national facilities from the Tokyo metropolitan area at the end of the war in anticipation of a decisive battle for the mainland. Megumi’s father, who is a historian as well as a teacher, often visited Matsushiro with her since she was a small child.

Megumi:At the time, I didn’t really understand the significance of the place. It is now open to the public and you can enter, but it was not yet public in the 80’s. The very existence of this place was not publicly tolerated. The very existence of the place itself was not tolerated publicly. When I tried to take pictures of the place, I was told “Don’t take pictures,” and for no reason at all I was told not to.

In 2002, just before the production of “8:15,” Megumi again visited Matsudai with her husband.

Megumi:It was at that time that my father said to me, “If it had not been for the atomic bombing, there would have been a decisive battle on the mainland in Japan, and you two might not have met.” These words left a deep impression on me.

A scene from “Please Cry” | Photo credits to Bernd Kumard

The year that Dana moved to Hamburg, her first placement, the Yugoslavian conflict broke out. Her dormmate, with whom she was sleeping and eating, was from that Yugoslavia. One day, her father was kidnapped.

Megumi:We didn’t have the Internet at that time, so we had to find a phone line inside the school and try to connect the phone somehow. I remember I served as a watchman while she talked on the phone, because if she was found out, she would be kicked out of school.

Even though the person sleeping in the bed above me was in such a dire situation, I was too busy working on my own dream to delve deeper and understand. However, the experiences and feelings I heard from others may have accumulated in my mind and subconsciously directed my awareness toward the issues in my expression.

A pamphlet imitating wartime Japanese newspaper | THE LEADS ASIA

What could really speak on its own is the personal memory

The failure to stop the runaway destruction of the Pacific War may have been due not only to some military personnel and thought control, but also to the general mood of society as a whole, which shared an atmosphere of optimism after World War I, which was not an all-out domestic war–Megumi says she came to this thought as she continued her research.

Megumi:But I cannot talk about these things to Japanese people so often. Japan is an A-bombed country, and everyone starved and suffered. I feel that there is a kind of taboo feeling that we are not allowed to tell any other narratives.

Megumi still feels this sense of taboo in Japanese society– the barrier to discussing war-related issues — even 80 years after the end of the war.

Megumi:Somehow, it’s frightening. I can’t control how I am perceived for what I say or communicate. I keep feeling that if I say something, I might get bashing, and I have this feeling that I can’t talk about it easily.

Dancing the unheard: Megumi’s memory project towards 2025

The year 2025 will mark the 80th anniversary of the end of the war. Starting with “Please Cry,” Tama is now planning a project to connect as many people’s memories and stories regarding their “life portraits” as possible. When disagreements and different historical perspectives divide people, she believes that personal memory is the key to a breakthrough.

Megumi:Reiko, the sound designer for this performance, is from Hiroshima. For her, the atomic bombing is absolutely unforgivable. But on the American side, there are those who say they condone it as “ending the war that Japan started.”

Some people still speak positively about the war, saying, “I am who I am today because of what happened. This may be because of the tendency of society and education to “keep the painful experiences under wraps and create a new era. Even though horrible things were done, suffered, and seen in the brutal apparatus called war.

I think the question, “What do you think about the war?” is perhaps not something that can be answered in a snap. After all, the only thing an individual can convey in a life-size perspective is what you, or someone close to you, have seen, felt and heard.

couple of hands
Photo by lil artsy on Pexels.com

At present, Megumi is working with a third-generation zainichi Korean saxophone player from Osaka to create a video work about his own and his family’s memories.

Megumi:I interviewed and asked him what his grandparents had experienced in Japan. I had him play free jazz in Berlin on a snowy day and I danced to it.

Screenshot from a Documentation Video © Bickmann & Kolde GbR

Other projects might be a dance piece inspired by the narrative, it might be a documentary film, or a single picture, or even a film.

Today’s world is also full of problems, and I would like to hear from various people about what has been going on in the 80 years since the end of the war, and how it is all connected and entangled. While creating this work, I believe that I will be able to learn and deepen my knowledge as well.

Megumi Eda | Megumi Eda is a Japanese dancer and filmmaker. Her career started with the Hamburg Ballet when she was 17, and over the next 15 years she went on to join the Dutch National Ballet and the Rambert Dance Company where she worked with many choreographers including John Neumeier, Jiri Kylian, William Forsythe, Krzysztof Pastor, Twyla Tharp, Christopher Bruce, Lindsey Kemp, Redha Benteifour, Hans van Manen and David Dawson. In 2004, she moved to New York as a founding member of Armitage Gone! Dance and participated in the collective creation of over a dozen new works as Karole Armitage’s lead dancer. She has also collaborated with Yoshiko Chuma since 2014 as a Performer/Filmmaker. She won a Bessie Award (NYC Dance & Performance Awards) in 2004. Megumi was named one of Dance Magazine’s BEST PERFORMERS of 2015. Since 2019, she has been based in Berlin. Her short film Endless Correspondences in collaboration with Reiko Yamada was selected for the Pool 21 Internationales TanzFilm Festival. Megumi is currently in the steady transition from being a pure dancer to a multi-media performing artist. Her very personal piece Please Cry is her debut as an auteur in Berlin.

Story by Kaori Kohyama

Translate »
%d bloggers like this: