It looks like an "inscrutable" mix of made-in-Japan imitations: the music of "Hair," the romance of "Shogun" and the satire of "Samurai Night Fever."
But "Shiro," a Japanese rock musical at the Kennedy Center through June 6, is an oriental prototype more than an occidental imitation.
"I went to New York and saw musicals," recalled 37-year-old Yutaka Higashi, who wrote and directed "Shiro."
"I thought why can't we do this form and not imitate the West. I was trying to do a musical of our own origin--not just a pale imitation--even though musicals didn't exist in Japan prior to their introduction by the West."
Speaking through interpreters, Higashi and producer Yoko Kaji explained the distinctively Asian content of their "Japanesque Rock Experience":
Shiro, a contemporary disco kid, struts a little too briskly on the dance floor and loses his omamori, a good luck charm given to him by his mother. "It's a very important thing that people cannot lose because it is a symbol of the basic self," says Kaji.
Shiro returns to his home town in search of the ancestral roots represented by the omamori. During the visit, he and four companions tumble through a time warp and land in the 17th century, just a few years before the Shimabara Revolt. This bloody rebellion, inspired by farmers' outrage at the shogun and by a crude form of Christianity, left 20,000 people dead.
"Today's young people are a post-war generation that doesn't have the traditions of their parents," says Higashi. "The contemporary youth culture doesn't have deep issues or an overriding purpose to live--just nice clothes and materialism. These four characters go back and experience the samurai way of life to find something for themselves."
Alienated from their heritage, these irreverent youths laugh at customs held dear by their ancestors: A trembling young man actually asks a girl how to perform the ritual hara kiri; a young woman carelessly drops a beautiful bonsai that an elderly man has spent years cultivating.
"Young people don't have these traditions in their reality, so it's hard for them to relate to," says Kaji.
In sharp contrast to these spoofs are two melancholy scenes: A distraught farmer tells his wife "I don't want to go to war; I want to farm"; and a young mother who has tragically lost her child goes insane.
"The insane mother symbolizes Japanese motherhood and is not part of the story line," says Kaji.
"In Japan, people say a woman goes crazy when she loses her child, when she is cut off from her biological continuity," says Higashi. "The play makes an analogy: A society goes crazy when it loses its past, when it is cut off from its cultural continuity."
During his exploit into the past, Shiro embraces a young woman beneath a shower of cherry blossoms--delicate, short-lived flowers symbolizing the transience of life. Although he loves her, Shiro forsakes the woman because she belongs in the past and he in the present.
"You are my mother's mother's mother," he tells her, meaning she is a link in the flow of time that allows him to exist in the present. To the Japanese, this type of difficult love is the most enduring and meaningful kind, says Kaji.
Shiro, enthralled by the past, becomes woven into it, a participant instead of an observer. He idolizes the legendary Shiro Amakusa, the 16-year-old peasant who led the Shimabara Revolt. Seated on the right side of the battlefield for a good view, the disco kid awaits the sight of the legendary hero. But a man in battle dress turns to the expectant youth and says, "You are Shiro."
Combatants in the ensuing battle, the four time travelers plummet into 1982. In the finale, Shiro, the disco kid, appears in an elaborate kimono that he strips off layer by layer to reveal a flashy disco shirt.
"He is peeling off the layers of history," says Higashi. "He is taking off the past and coming into the present with lots of self-understanding."
"For years the Japanese were learning a lot from the West," he says. But now the strength of the West is declining vis-a -vis the Japanese. So many Japanese people are asking whether we should explore within ourselves to discover who we are."
This interest in the past carries a political connotation of going to the right, says Higashi. "But we are not pushing for a movement to the right. That is another thing. All we are saying is that we have been influenced by the West and now we should rediscover our Japaneseness."