A headline first written by Frank Chin in 2010, “Don’t F**k With No-No Boy,” captures the insistence with which audiences should reject the recent stage adaptation of John Okada’s landmark novel No-No Boy.
A New York theater company is now pitching a national tour. with stops in the Midwest and West Coast, of an adaptation of No-No Boy that violates the art of John Okada by tacking on an artificially happy ending to his story.
After more than 100,000 copies sold in 17 printings over nearly 60 years, it is well-established that much of No-No Boy‘s power and authenticity lies in its furiously violent and tragic ending. Okada cuts to the bone. He holds nothing back, and most importantly he tries to please no one.
After “two years in camp and two years in prison,” draft resister Ichiro Yamada returns to find his Seattle hometown shattered and its people divided. Parents mourn sons lost in battle; veterans return maimed and succumb to their wounds; resisters are blamed and ostracized; a woman abandoned by her soldier husband finds comfort in Ichiro’s arms; his mother goes mad when forced to admit Japan lost the war and drowns herself. Having fun yet?
At the Club Oriental (a stand-in for the Wah Mee Club in Seattle), Ichiro and fellow resister Freddie Akimoto raise their glasses in a toast to fallen friends when the angriest of the Nisei vets, a man called Bull, yanks Freddie off his stool and shoves him out to Maynard Alley. Ichiro tries to break it up and wrestles Bull to the ground, but driven by fear he slams his fist into Bull’s face and draws blood. Freddie kicks Bull in the gut, but the enraged man lurches up. Freddie jumps into his car to flee, but Bull pulls open the door. Freddie clubs him with a wrench and hits the gas, shooting onto a cross street where his car is instantly struck by another and flips into the air, throwing him halfway out the open door and nearly severing him in half upon crashing. Numb with shock, Bull asks Ichiro for a drink. Ichiro brings a bottle of whiskey and Bull grabs it and drinks:
“Agggggggghh,” he screamed and, with the brute strength that could only smash, hurled the whiskey bottle across the alley. Then he started to cry, not like a man in grief or a soldier in pain, but like a baby in loud, gasping, beseeching howls.
Ichiro walks slowly away from the scene, desperately searching in his mind for some kind of redemption for white racism, Pearl Harbor, and the war; the mass eviction and incarceration based solely on race; and the conscience that led to his own resistance, prison, and social ostracism.
In the stage adaptation now being shopped, this vicious climax is muted and the unsettled ending is omitted.
SPOILER ALERT: Instead, after a brief knife fight, Freddie escapes. Ichiro goes out dancing — a scene from earlier in the book, with Emi the abandoned wife and Ichiro alone on the dance floor, finding momentary acceptance in the indifference of the whites around them. And as they hold each other close on the floor, all the characters from the play, including the ghosts of those departed, REENTER the stage to offer final words, of blessing and hope for the future. Ichiro and Emi kiss. They are going to live happily ever after, doggone it.
It’s a theatrical moment. It’s probably very moving in performance. It’s also schmaltz. And it’s very wrong.
Suggesting that Ichiro is capable of romance this early in his re-entry to this world is contrary to the internal evidence we have of Okada’s intent. A close reading of the text by Floyd Cheung and Bill E. Peterson of Smith College in the journal Centennial Review establishes that the social context of late 1940s America simply did not allow for a happy ending for Ichiro. Okada shows him walking away from the crowd around Freddie’s death. If we can divine anything about Okada’s intent, it is that “He remains an outsider,” and the ideological setting surrounding Japanese American men at this time “is not yet fertile enough for Ichiro to ground his identity within it.”
The problem with reading the end of No-No Boy with a strong sense of optimism, though, lies in the fact that … the ideological setting of postwar America provides impoverished imagoes from which to choose for Japanese American men. Neither the no-no boys nor the yes-yes boys are happy… The social context of postwar Seattle influences whether individual stories of identity will have the tone and content of a comedy, tragedy, irony, romance, or some other story form.
To convey his vision of Japanese America after Pearl Harbor, the camps, combat, prison, and resettlement, Okada carefully constructs Ichiro’s social context to end with tragedy. To substitute romance at the end violates Okada’s story form.
This is not an issue we are eager to take up. The adaptation is done by Southern California actor and dramaturg Ken Narasaki, a former comrade from the halcyon days of Garrett Hongo’s seminal Asian Exclusion Act in Seattle in 1977. We’ve both been inspired and mentored by writer Frank Chin, who had this exchange with Narasaki in 2010 on the original Santa Monica production of this script:
Narasaki offers his reasons for rewriting Okada’s end to No-No Boy, that amount to, he’s dead. I can do what I want with the dead — “We intended to show that in the end, there was hope for Ichiro … that he would discover love and life. I’m sorry you disagreed with the ending, but I continue to believe that if John Okada were alive, he wouldn’t be quite as harsh a critic, but of course, we’ll never know.”
It’s because we’ll never know, that we should not fuck with the end as written. Okada isn’t the same rewritten, and Narasaki knows he’s violated the work he claims inspired him. If Shakespeare had lived longer he might have rewritten a happy end for Romeo and Juliet instead of one dying after the other. Then again he might not. — Frank Chin
Chin followed a further exchange with this rebuttal: “What makes his claim offensive is he is sure that had Okada lived he would have written an ending more like Narasaki’s.”
We agree. John Okada isn’t here to defend his work. This impulse to eschew the darkness that is the power of No-No Boy, and replace it with sentiment to leave the audience happy, is as old as Hollywood itself — a place where Mr. Narasaki has a background in writing coverage of screenplays for film producers.
We’ve seen this impulse in others who’ve held an option on Okada’s book. One such ill-conceived film treatment added a full page of patriotic praise for the 442 at the funeral of the Nisei veteran Kenji and then, after Ma’s funeral, we see Emi returning to the Yamada grocery in a sporty car and inviting Ichiro to go for a ride. Instead of staggering away from a Chinatown alleyway lost and alone, this movie version of Ichiro offered his final upbeat line as something like, “Say, this might be a good day after all.”
As a forthcoming study of John Okada will show, he was certainly capable of comedy, satire, and upbeat endings. If he wanted No-No Boy to end on a happy note, he would have written it that way. The evidence we have on the page extends to claimed representations of his work on the stage and the screen. Accept no substitutes.
UPDATE: This essay was reprinted April 29, 2015, on the Japanese American National Museum’s Discover Nikkei blog, where Mr. Narasaki also provides a response. Read our rebuttal, published here on June 26.