by Bill Gordon

Friendship Visits
Ichigi Elementary School
October 21, 2002

Shizuko (left) tells her friend Mitsuko (right)
that the doll visits her home at midnight

The main reason for my visit to Ichigi Elementary School in Toyota City was to see The Secret Friend, a children’s play about a Blue-eyed Doll named Grammy sent from North Carolina to a Japanese elementary school in 1927. This play was performed by the Urinko Theater Company in Nagoya, which has been performing plays for children since 1973. Urinko performed the play twice at Ichigi Elementary, once in the morning for the 1st to 3rd graders and again in the afternoon for the 4th to 6th graders.

I thought the play was GREAT!! Even though the play took place in the gloomy times of World War II, the children laughed in many places, such as when the people in the play bumped into each other going through the door or when the "brave boy" showed his fear upon seeing the Blue-eyed Doll come to life. The children really laughed hard when they saw the two boys in slow motion playing that they were fighting with swords by using brooms. The fake swordplay of the two boys required a lot of athletic ability.

Two boys engage in sword play with brooms
The play emphasizes the importance of friendship, mainly between the 5th-grade girl named Shizuko and the Blue-eyed Doll named Grammy. Even when others criticized Shizuko for taking care of this doll from America, who was Japan’s bitter enemy during World War II, she remained steadfast in her friendship with Grammy. Shizuko thought that Grammy had been destroyed when an official from the local government forced the principal and one of the teachers to take the doll away. When Shizuko was 73 years old, she discovered from her granddaughter, who attended the same school as Shizuko, that Grammy had been found and was on display in a glass case at the school. Even after over 60 years, Shizuko remained close friends with Grammy. Although the play had many humorous parts, I had tears in my eyes a couple of times near the end. Several of the children's comments about the play (from a promotional brochure published by Urinko) also mention how they cried near the end of the play after enjoying the many humorous parts.
Grammy introduces herself to Shizuko's friend (right)
"Brave" boy scared to see Grammy alive (left) 
I think the children (and adults) could relate more to Grammy when she came alive and appeared to her friends between midnight and one o’clock. When Grammy came alive, she taught American dances to Shizuko and her friends, and she explained that her rose brooch would bloom when she made many friends. Everyone was happy at the end of the play when they saw that her flower had bloomed. The Secret Friend had some similarities with the story of Cinderella, since a transformation happened at midnight and since one night Grammy lost one of her red shoes as she hurried out of Shizuko’s bedroom.

This past spring Mizuho Nakahata, a member of the Urinko Theater Group, sent me the script for The Secret Friend. I thought it was a wonderful story when I first read the script, but seeing the actual play was a much more meaningful and emotional experience. Attending the play allowed me to see the humor and emotions of the actors and actresses. 

Backstage with the cast of The Secret Friend
After seeing the play, I had the opportunity to go backstage to meet the cast of the play. This group has performed The Secret Friend about 30 times since May 2002, and they plan to continue the performances for three years. The play is usually performed in Aichi Prefecture around the Nagoya area, but the group has been asked to perform the play by an elementary school as far away as Gunma Prefecture.

The play's cast required very strong voices for the performance at Ichigi Elementary, since the gymnasium's acoustics were not good and since rain was pattering on the roof during most of the play. When I first saw the cast before the play, I was somewhat surprised by the variety of stretching and voice exercises they were performing at various place around the gymnasium. However, when I saw the acrobatics of the two boys playing in slow motion with swords and heard the clear powerful voices of the cast, I understood why they required such warm-up exercises.

4th-grade class
I ate lunch with one of the 4th-grade classes at Ichigi Elementary School. I tried to answer their many questions about America while eating at the same time. The children were quite excited to receive Halloween stickers of ghosts, jack-o'-lanterns, Draculas, bats, black cats, and Frankensteins.

Two staff members of the Urinko Theater Company took me by car to visit the Urinko Theater in Nagoya. In addition to performing plays at schools, the theater company also has its own small theater to give public performances and to rehearse. 

With staff at Urinko Theater
and Mizuho Nakahata (bottom right)
In addition to the team that performed The Secret Friend, the Urinko Theater Company has three other teams that perform different plays. These plays are performed for children from elementary school to high school.

When I went to the Urinko Theater, I had the opportunity to meet members from the other three teams and the staff members working at the office of the theater group. The people there were all very nice, and I received photos for use on this page and many brochures about Urinko's other plays. They even let me borrow a photo book about the homecoming of Miss Gifu, which they had received from Katsuhiro Natsume, who I first met last year when I visited Saigo Elementary School in Aichi Prefecture.

I hope someday to have the chance to see again this wonderful play, The Secret Friend, performed by the Urinko Theater Company!!

Friendship Visits - October 2002

Children's Comments About Play
Urinko's Web Page About Play

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