Free tickets are a wonderful custom in Japan and one I’ve never understood. A sizable percentage of the people you see at galleries and movie theatres are there because some organization (their company, a club, school) gave them the ticket. It makes you wonder how any show makes a profit. One explanation offered to me is that it looks good to have a big turnout in the opening days and encourages others to come (one of the national past-times in Japan is joining queues). There’s even a Japanese expression for a crowd you bring in to draw a bigger crowd: sakura (cherry blossoms/桜 ). But how to explain free tickets to a limited-run theatre performance, where word of mouth would not have time to spread? This flummoxes me, although in this case, face-saving on the part of the promoters might have had something to do with it. I’m not complaining too much, because I’ve just profited from the custom.
At lunch, two Wednesdays ago, a colleague mentioned that a branch of our school had free tickets to the play The Last Laugh, which was playing that night and that Thursday in Osaka. I’d read about it: the tickets cost something like ¥7800, a bit (as in three times) out of my price range. What was the catch, I asked. No catch, he said – the school staff was handing them out to anyone who wanted them. The staff seemed to have no idea what it was about (or where the tickets had come from), but when I called that branch they set a pair of tickets aside for me.
Now the theatre, out behind the Hotel New Otani at Osakajoukoen Station, was well-packed with foreigners, several of whom looked as though they’d been handed their tickets mid-session at Murphy’s Pub. None of them/us looked as though they/we would fork out 80 bucks for a play. Many of the Japanese audience left at the interval, despite the excellent translation which ran vertically on screens along both sides of the stage (Japanese reads perfectly well this way, better than English). The play was advertised as a comedy, I think, instead of the satire it turned out to be. This would have confused a home-town Osaka crowd, for whom comedy equals a loud man hitting another loud man with a fish. Their loss, though, because it allowed Mike and I to jump up to a better view (not that ours was so bad, but all those empty better ones were too tempting).
I certainly didn’t envy the actors, though, playing dry English comedy to a predominately Japanese audience who, besides being fairly undemonstrative at the best of times, were also reading translations to the side (missing bits of stage business). They were pretty game, though, and those of us who got it certainly showed them our appreciation. Still, being in a house full of people who understood would have added to my enjoyment (it wasn’t nearly as bad, though, as the day in 1995 when I went to see Priscilla Queen of the Desert in Shinsaibashi and was, until intimidated by the roaring silence of everyone else in the cinema, the only one laughing – perhaps I was the only one who knew it wasn’t a documentary).