Baaba’s Footsteps, VAULT Festival

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By Keagan Fransch

Baaba’s Footsteps begins with a striking first image: Takako, a 16-year old woman embarking on a life-changing journey in Japan, 1920. She stands upright and wide-eyed; determined, stoic, hopeful, and perhaps a little naive, Takako gazes into the middle distance, willing her new life as a picture bride into existence with a desperate intensity. It is this image that Yu, Takako’s great-granddaughter, frantically chases a hundred years later. Yu works as a television director in Tokyo, talented and busy and upwardly mobile. However, when she is suddenly fired for having an affair with a married co-worker (who is then promoted to the position she was up for), she is forced to take stock of her life, and decides to retrace her great-grandmother’s footsteps to America to hopefully regain a sense of meaning and control.

We follow the journeys of these two women – at once different and the same, intertwined and overlapping – separated by time, but bound by the determination to carve out a piece of the world that is safe, and certain, and theirs. Excited for a future in the land of the free, Takako hopes to earn some money in America so that she can send it back to help her mother in Japan. But when she arrives on the docks in 1920 San Francisco, eager to meet the man in the photo she anxiously clings to, she finds that the image doesn’t quite match the man. Her new husband, Tommy, isn’t exactly what she expected – far from it. In 2020, Yu arrives in San Fran and is encouraged to go online dating and, as expected, she encounters men who are not quite who they present themselves to be in their profiles.

Image and expectation versus the reality of people, places and promises made are at the heart of this gut-wrenching story. The parallels between the two journeys are both beautiful and frightening – the hope, the disappointment, the impending failures of humanity. But there are stark differences too that provide some relief: Takako’s heartbreaking insistence to a surgeon that he operate on her eyes and change her image so that she will no longer be seen as “the enemy”, compared to Yu’s world a century later where she and those around her are aware and emphatic that she is beautiful as she is. The script treads this line of likeness and difference between the two with care, though there are a few missteps.

Littered lightly throughout there are some poignant political commentaries on the current US administration and Detention Centres – alarming parallels to what has happened before with the Japanese internment camps of World War II. These moments are wonderfully subtle and piercing in their sheer brevity – so brief in fact that you could miss them as they whizz past, like a fast scroll through an overwhelming Twitter feed. This brilliant injection of immediacy is such a clever parallel, or rather, real world re-occurrence, that one or two more would not have gone amiss. For while other parallels drawn are credible enough (Yu’s dating life woes with regard to image, expectation and disappointment), some others are simply forced, such as Yu finding herself in a sticky situation with the law for an infringement that is entirely unclear, or when she meets someone who just happens to be a cosmetic surgeon. This may simply be a symptom of altogether too many story beats packed into a script that is only given an hour in which to tell them.

The piece also suffers from a sense of being rushed and cramped with the result being too little time given to flesh out Yu’s motivations and behaviours. So while we’re given a clear, thoughtful, wrenching account of Takako’s awful struggles in WW2 America, we get a Yu that comes off as either naive about adult life or too inept to live it. Her complaints of everyday sexism, missed promotions and bad dates seeming rather insignificant and paling in comparison to what her great-grandmother went through. When it seems so easy for Yu to get to San Fran from Tokyo, go on dates, hang out with her carefree American cousin and have the freedom, inclination and ability to “marry” oneself without becoming a destitute woman, it begs the question – what exactly is Yu’s problem? An utterly unfair and infuriating question, of course, as Yu’s worries are completely valid, but are unfortunately diminished by the uneven storytelling.

Despite this, Susan Hingley’s given us a really clever script, with sharp dialogue and compelling concept, sadly let down by time constraints and poor form choices. While the use of the ensemble to set and embody the various and varying environments is a helpful device, and some of the use of props is truly lovely (there are some gorgeous moments with a paper boat), there are many moments where the embodiments and prop work morph into a comedic style that is camp, skit-like and almost slapstick. This, rather than supporting the storytelling, sinks it, making the tone of the piece inconsistent and tarnishing some of the aforementioned poignant moments. The script is already funny (a delightful scene between Takako and Ume, another picture bride on the boat to San Fran, is particularly charming and hilarious) so these added comedic elements are often unnecessary and detracting. While the form in itself is clever and cleverly executed, it is not quite layered together with the rest of the piece well enough to both entertain and agitate the audience into engaging meaningfully with the political and emotional heart of play.

The true strength of the piece, then, lies in the telling of Takako’s story, and in particular the excerpts from her diary. Hingley’s writing here is transportive: indescribably beautiful, evocative and poetic. One could watch a full-length play of just this and still want more, and Tomoko Komura’s performance of Takako in these moments is spellbinding.

Baaba’s Footsteps is a bold and often brilliant interrogation of the cycle of expectation and disappointment that is perpetuated by the precarity of image, and our insistence on engaging with false ideas of people – clinging to stereotypes and pre-judging based on the continued circulation of two-dimensional images. Among many things, it smartly asks, ‘What do we rely on when we can’t trust expectation and are constantly facing disappointment?’ And perhaps it suggests an answer, in encouraging us to make a life-long commitment to ourselves and our own self-worth. Easier said than done, but so refreshing to have the reminder to try.

Baaba’s Footsteps runs through 15 March.

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