Quick, think of a play about business and businessmen. What comes to mind? The works of David Mamet? The sad career of Willy Loman? In any case, if you've thought of something, it's probably some savage American play about hard men, hard luck, or both.
Now imagine a distant, alien land, where doing business is a matter of cooperation and honor, not cutthroat competition. Where a business contract – if a contract is even deemed necessary – contains a requirement that if circumstances that might affect the terms of the contract change, the parties will sit down and politely discuss the matter.
Japan, early 1950s. With his country still reeling from the war, weapons engineer Masaru Ibuka (Alexander Schröder) dreams of founding a new consumer electronics company where he will run "the ideal factory" and help "reconstruct Japan." He will "eliminate any untoward profit-taking" and in the process "elevate the nation's culture." Doesn't sound much like the dog-eat-dog world of American business, and indeed it's not.
heavenly BENTO, a German production which just ran for three nights in English at the Japan Society, uses narration, dramatic conversations, dance, and innovative video to tell a stylized but engrossing version of the founding and success of Sony, first in Japan, then in the US. The audience sits above a raised white platform which is both stage and projection screen. The players – two actors and a dancer – interact with projected images at their feet.
One thinks of a boxing ring. One thinks also of a giant flat-screen TV. Both are appropriate. When Sony comes to New York, in the person of Akio Morita (Jun Kim), it must adjust its culture to that of 1950s America: competitive, chaotic, and big. Though a hit in Japan, Sony's pocket-size radio initially fails to impress American distributors, who insist that Americans want everything to be huge.
Initially a cautious and none-too-confident fellow, Morita squeezes himself through the sieve of American styles and ways, emerging a forceful, creative, and adaptable marketer. Ikeda, who stays in Japan struggling for years to perfect what would become Trinitron color TV technology, never fully comes to grips with what is required to expand successfully into the US market, and it is the contrast between the two men, one developing and progressing, the other sticking to the old ways, that provides the play with much of its drama.
The development of Sony's technology becomes a compelling story too. The company initially had to fight a reputation Japanese manufacturers had in America for "cheap stuff and bad imitations." But after lengthy birth pangs, the Trinitron is a technological and popular success, and when color is finally projected onto the wide, white stage floor, the change is dramatic. With it the dancer (Kazue Ikeda) appears, and the future appears bright.
It's interesting to hear of Ibuka's half-century-old dream for his radios, that "they will be smaller and more beautiful than anything built before," coupled with his desire to "build unseen things in mysterious ways…such products exists in people's dreams – we just have to follow our dreams." This is exactly the sort of language used today of (and by) Apple. The breakthrough iPod was a latter-day Sony Walkman (which was itself a latter-day Sony TR-6 portable radio). iPod and Walkman had exactly the same function. But in the interim Sony had acquired too much faith in its own infallibility, insisting too firmly on going its own way and that the public would follow. It had lost that magical ability to tap into consumers' unconscious dreams, and instead trusted its own. Apple stepped in.
The play doesn't deal with Sony's loss of the the mantle of cool. The closest it gets to Cupertino is a mention of Sony's leap into Hollywood with its 1989 acquisition of Columbia Pictures. But the story it tells has something mysterious and magical about it – as mysterious, in its way, as art itself.
heavenly BENTO played for three nights this past week at the Japan Society in New York. It returns to Berlin for a short run next month.