The Santa Monica Playhouse brings to American audiences the premier of the Japanese musical, Gempou: A Zen Master of Living Without Arms, meant to “build a bridge between cultures through theatrical exchange,” Playhouse officials say.

The play is part of Santa Monica Playhouse’s 2005 International Cultural Exchange Program.

Gempou: A Zen Master of Living Without Arms, will be performed at 7 p.m. Saturday, April 2nd, at the Miles Memorial Playhouse, 1130 Lincoln Blvd., Santa Monica; and at 7 p.m. Tuesday, April 5th, at the Santa Monica Playhouse, 1211 Fourth St., Santa Monica. Tickets range from $12 to $15.

“The Santa Monica Playhouse International Cultural Exchange Program has been bringing groundbreaking, culturally diverse theater to Los Angeles audiences for over 15 years, and this presentation continues that tradition,” says Santa Zeitzew, spokeswoman for Santa Monica Playhouse.

Plans for the musical emerged after July 1st last year, when the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) recognized the Kumano Mountains in Japan as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. UNESCO designates heritage sites around the world that the group considers to be of outstanding value to humanity.

The Kumano Mountains, in the Wakayama Prefecture of the western part of Japan, are a mystical place filled with paths leading to several shrines and temples built hundreds of years ago, organizers say. According to Japanese belief, various gods and spirits have inhabited this sacred area since ancient times.

After the heritage site designation by UNESCO, the Kumano UNESCO World Site Promotional Musical Committee of Wakayama, Japan was organized to start a nonprofit musical project, GEMPOU, to introduce this beautiful mountain range internationally.

Zeitzew says the musical came to Santa Monica because of the “desire of the people of Wakayama to bring the healing power of the mountains to the people of California in the wake of the devastating wild fires. This is a gift to the citizens of Santa Monica and Los Angeles.”

The musical, created by Mitsuyo Tamai — who also is the musical director — will be performed in both English and Japanese and features over two dozen community members from the Wakayama Prefecture in Japan. The theatrical group will perform the modern musical tale in traditional Japanese style with Kendo, Aikido and Hanagasondo dance demonstrations included, according to Zeitzew.

GEMPOU tells the true story of a young orphan named Yoshikichi Okamoto who lived life without meaning or purpose. At the age of 20 he learned that he would soon lose his sight, which led him to make a pilgrimage to 88 holy temples in Japan.

During the course of his travels, the story says, Yoshikichi searched for the answer to what living meant to him. While visiting a temple, he collapsed from exhaustion and was discovered by a temple master, who nursed him and inspired him to live an aesthetic life of strict discipline in order to seek the meaning of life. Yoshikichi’s life example of discipline and control gained him the trust of the people around him, and he eventually became a Zen master known as Gempou Yamamoto.

During World War II, the story says, Gempou cared for the people suffering around him and facilitated the opening of many temples for the relief of the poor. Over time, his reputation as a wise man grew, and national leaders, including a Japanese Prime Minister, visited Gempou for advice.

It is told that defying severe pressure from nationalists and the military, Japanese Prime Minister Kantaro Suzuki sought the advice of Gempou alone, who advised the prime minister to put an end to World War II by surrendering with dignity.

According to the musical, Gempou was instrumental in facilitating the end of Japanese involvement in World War II by advising the prime minister, “We should admit we have lost the war and start from the beginning for our descendants. I believe that to admit we have lost doesn’t mean we have actually lost. To think we have won doesn’t mean we have really won.”

According to organizers, the musical illuminates Gempou’s pacifist teachings, shares with audiences the “gracious heart of Zen,” and offers a new generation powerful examples of Gempou’s life and teachings.

Information, 310-394-9779 ext. 1.

Julie Kirst can be reached at juliekirst@yahoo.com

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