Blood: Back by Popular Demand Review - Conspiracy Reaches to the Top

“A fatal disease does not mean it’s the end.” These prophetic words were uttered by Ryubei Kawada, the real-life Koyo Ninomiya, who was diagnosed with HIV at the age of ten and recently celebrated his fortieth birthday. It is his true story, as well as the stories of many others, that BLOOD commemorates.

A stunning political thriller, BLOOD outlines a massive conspiracy which almost succeeded in escaping notice. Although the play takes place in Japan, it really began in the U.S. Around 1980, scientists discovered that blood and other bodily fluids were the vector which spread AIDS. Almost immediately the use of tainted blood was discontinued, and heated blood (which killed the AIDS virus) was used instead – in the U.S. What to do with the huge quantity of tainted blood which was supposed to be destroyed? Big pharma found a solution and knowingly sold the tainted blood to other countries, including Japan. The profit motive runs deep.

Glenne Headly and Takuma Anzai - Photo by Ed Krieger

The president of Japan’s AIDS Research Committee and the Hemophilia Society, Dr. Kazama (Michael Yama), based on real-life Dr. Takeshi Abe, insisted that full-blood Japanese could not get AIDS. After all, it was a disease of Western decadence. Of course, if the individual was only partially Japanese (with maybe a soupcon of Korean or other foreign blood), then all bets were off.

Michael Yama - Photo by Ed Krieger

Maybe the “Japanese Tainted Blood Scandal” would never have been uncovered but for Jules Davis (Glenne Headly), an American journalist who was in Japan for an extended visit and began to question why a former student had mysteriously died – especially when not one hospital staff member would answer even the simplest of questions about her friend’s death. When she meets Japanese-Korean attorney Yoji Kurosawa (James Kyson), they collaborate to investigate the matter more closely.

James Kyson and Kazumi Aihara - Photo by Ed Krieger

Written and directed by multi-talented Robert Allan Ackerman, this blood-curdling (pun intended) tale wends its way up to the highest ranks of political Japan, where cover-up was a way of life. In large part, the cover-up thrived because it fed on some ingrained Japanese cultural norms – no one wanted to admit being terminally ill or even rather sick, with the fear of losing face greater than the fear of dying. American Ackerman worked in Japan intermittently over a 20-year period, and he clearly understands Japanese thinking and rituals better than most.

When Jules Davis does what reporters tend to do – write an expose for an American newspaper – the news slowly works its way into the Japanese press. After she is warned that Japanese politicos are on very good terms with Yakuza members – and that her life may be on the line – she retreats back to the U.S. (which in some ways may mirror Ackerman’s own experience while writing BLOOD). But that does not stop her legal friend from continuing to dig. Each revelation becomes more startling than the previous one, and the patients start to pile up.

BLOOD Ensemble - Photo by Ed Krieger

BLOOD is a brilliant study of a real-life conspiracy which resulted in 2,000 people in Japan dying from AIDS. But just as brilliant as the moving story is the mode of its presentation. The “stage” consists of three large red screens which are moved into different configurations as scenes evolve. Sometimes they are lit by signs, lines, and other relevant markings. The music is a striking parody of Japanese theater with Kabuki figures interchanged with BLOOD actors doing their own thing. Lyrics are integral to the tale. Slabs of wood vibrantly tap to a breathless crescendo to denote important moments. Even the falsetto of traditional Japanese actors is introduced. Interestingly, the villainous throng of Japanese politicians are presented as buffoons – a strong choice which introduces some humor into the otherwise grim proceedings.

The Ministers of Japan - Photo by Ed Krieger

Without a doubt, this is a dazzling introduction to Japan – its theater, culture, music, even scandal. BLOOD is inventive in a way which few other plays emulate. Each small element is carefully considered as it moves inexorably towards the conclusion. This is a must-see play on many levels. One or more of these levels will resonate with different audience members. And, besides, it’s really entertaining.

BLOOD originally premiered in the spring of 2016. Back by popular demand, the reboot of BLOOD runs through December 18, 2016, with performances at 8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and at 3 p.m. on Sundays. The Complex is located at 6476 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood, CA 90038. Tickets cost $35 (students $25). For information and reservations, call 323-960-7745 or go online.

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