Bringing a 1943 propaganda film on stage

A 1943 propaganda film featuring a Japanese "Robin Hood" in Malaya inspired the new Teater Ekamatra production opening this week.

Written by Alfian Sa'at and directed by Teater Ekamatra's artistic director Mohd Fared Jainal, Tiger Of Malaya features a cast from Singapore and Japan, and runs at the Drama Centre Black Box from tomorrow till Sept 23.

The term "Tiger Of Malaya" is often associated with Japanese general Tomoyuki Yamashita, who captured Malaya and Singapore during World War II. However, the old film and this week's play are based on the life story of Tani Yutaka, a Japanese bandit who lived in Malaya. He is portrayed as a heroic figure, leading his band against British imperial forces and "evil" Chinese capitalists.

The play re-enacts scenes from the film - with "interruptions, interventions and subversions" according to Alfian. Malay actors play parts that were originally played by a Japanese cast.

The cast includes Farez Najid, Siti Khalijah Zainal and Rei Poh from Singapore, and Rei Kitagawa and Yuya Tanaka from Japan. Dialogue is in Malay, English, Japanese and Mandarin - Japanese-speaking researcher Shawn Chua is the dramaturg.

Actor Farez, 30, watched the Tiger Of Malaya film before being cast for the production. "It was with a bunch of boys who were interested in war and it was hilarious," he says.

For him and many of the other performers in their 30s, World War II is too far away to affect the present day. "We consume Japanese media a lot, the culture," he points out. "The war is generations away."

Japanese actor Tanaka, 31, feels equally distant from the war, but says: "I'm curious how people will respond to the play."

 (from far left) Farez Najid, Rei Kitagawa, Yuya Tanaka, Siti Khalijah Zainal and Rei Poh.
The cast of Tiger Of Malaya: (from left) Farez Najid, Rei Kitagawa, Yuya Tanaka, Siti Khalijah Zainal and Rei Poh. PHOTO: TEATER EKAMATRA

  • BOOK IT / TIGER OF MALAYA

  • WHERE: Drama Centre Black Box, Level 5, National Library Building, 100 Victoria Street

    WHEN: Tomorrow to Sept 16; Sept 18 to 23. Tuesdays to Fridays 8pm, Saturdays and Sundays, 3 and 8pm

    ADMISSION: $40 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to sistic.com.sg). Selling fast

    INFO: In English, Malay, Japanese and Mandarin, with English surtitles

Alfian, who has written several plays for Teater Ekamatra, including political satire GRC (2015), is fascinated by the "myth-making" aspect of Tiger Of Malaya, where a bandit "was pitched as a symbol of the Japanese providing anti-colonial and nationalist leadership in Asia".

"I've been very interested in exploring historiography - or how history is written - through theatre, and I felt that the movie provided this very rich material," he says.

For the director, Fared, the play brought up similar questions.

"How can we relate back to an event that happened way before this current time? How true is history being recorded?" he asks.

Work began on Tiger Of Malaya well before it was announced that Singapore would commemorate its bicentennial next year - 200 years after Sir Stamford Raffles landed.

Fared says: "We were not particularly aligning it to the whole bicentennial celebrations. But somehow with this work, it questions our very own existence in this part of the world through the lens of history."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 11, 2018, with the headline 'Bringing a 1943 propaganda film on stage'. Print Edition | Subscribe