Yasukichi Murakami: Through a Distant Lens, by Mayu Kanamori | Directed by Malcolm Blaylock

Griffin Theatre Company | Stables Theatre, Darlinghurst, Sydney | Until 21 February

Through a Distant Lens tells the surprisingly compelling story of Yasukichi Murakami, who was born in Japan in 1880 and moved to Australia at the age of 16. Murakami worked mostly in Broome and Darwin in the early 1900s as a photographer, but he was also a successful in business, as was his first wife Eki, 15 years his senior.

But a market slump saw Marukami declared bankrupt and Eki divorcing him and returning to Japan. When he married again, it was to a much younger girl/woman with whom he had nine children. Tragically, when Japan entered World War II Murakami and his family were interned in a camp in Melbourne and classified as enemy aliens. His photographic works were confiscated and consequently lost.

Mayu Kanamori is the artist who shares this story with us. Also a Japanese/Australian photographer, she set out in pursuit to find Murakami’s lost photographs, and the result is Through a Distant Lens,  a multi-media work that documents her interactions with Murakami’s work and family.

Enlarged photographs of early Darwin and Broome set the scene. Projected on a large screen, these form an impressively evocative backdrop for the performance and the actors — Arisa Yura and Kuni Hashimoto — who background for us both the events and the artistic process.

Hashimoto is uncannily authentic in his depiction of Murakami as he philosophically shares both his opinions on photography and the proceedings that occurred in his business deals and his personal life as is Arisa Yura, who convincingly animates the events with her excitement at each new discovery and her admiration for her subject’s talent and strength of character.

Malcolm Blaylock’s assured direction orchestrates a minimalist sensibility that creates a textured tone and mood, and he is most ably assisted by the creative team of Mic Grundy, visual designer, and Luiz Pampolha, lighting designer. Further accolades must also go to Terumi Narushima, who provides an original sound design and composition, as well as playing flute and Japanese folk instruments side stage. Combined, these provide a meditative component prompting reflection on the role of the still image, the collective memory and the changing nature and role of the photographer, courtesy of the digital age.

This is not just documentary theatre. Certainly, it is superbly researched and narrated, telling the tale of an artist whose history and work was up until now mostly forgotten. But it is as if the subject matter — the multi-cultural nature of Darwin before World War II and the nature and power of frozen images — assembles a chorus of ghosts who people the proceedings with an eerie but benign presence.

This is a thoughtful and compelling piece of work . Thumb Up!