Remembering dad: Empire of the Son is an artful memoir of a tempestuous father-son relationship. A review

Tetsuro Shigematsu in Empire of the Son. Photo by: Raymond Shum

By Liz Nicholls,

“For a long time I did not like my father,” says the puckish, elegantly moustached figure before us in Empire of the Son.

Like? Hmmm.… Who among us hasn’t felt the disconcerting ripple of a thought like that stirring up the grit in the memory pool?

Tetsuro Shigematsu’s funny, heartfelt, and artful solo memoir, arriving in a touring production from Vancouver Canadian Asian Theatre, conjures not one man, but two. They are from two generations separated not just by age but by culture — and the time-rubbed frictions between the old world and the new.

Empire of the Son former CBC public broadcaster Shigematsu has created a double portrait of a father and son who can each easily communicate to the world at large by radio, but resist being in the same frame up close in family life.

It’s set forth onstage in a fascinating jangle of sound and sound clips, ingenious theatrical devices, anecdotes, projected images and family photos, and video. In the process of conjuring his late father from beyond the grave, the son, agile and quick-witted, offers an insight into a culture where gender has a kind of formal stage presence  and age has a kind of authority that’s gotten pretty frayed in this part of the world.

Tetsuro Shigematsu in Empire of the Son. Photo by Raymond Shum.

The younger Shigematsu describes his father Akira (Mr. Shigematsu to you, if you please) as “a mountain, a force of nature, a waterfall.” Later in his show, when Shigematsu interviews his elderly dad, Shigematsu says “my questions were the Rockies” and his father’s answers were “long prairies of silence.”

As a boy growing up in Japan Shigematsu’s father had witnessed the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima. His father’s reaction to his son’s question about that seminal end-of-the-world moment in history is revealing, the son tells us with the endearing wryness that, along with bemused exasperation, is one of the keynotes of the show. He hadn’t been feeling very well, the father had allowed; he attributed it to food poisoning. Now, that’s reserve.

The curious, but telling, parallels in the career paths of father and son are one of the striking signifiers in a show that’s about communicating across great divides of reticence and notions of what’s seemly for males. And there’s something a little breath-taking about actually seeing the real-life object that for a long time was the only link between father and son: a radio microphone.

The father, a die-hard anglophile, had left Japan for England, and a job with the BBC Foreign Service. Later, in Canada, his broadcaster’s job at CBC was the victim of cuts, and he ended his career in the mailroom, troubled by “the lack of silence” and blocking out chatter with a pair of big yellow headphones.

So, a microphone and noise-blocking headphones: they’re the show-and-tell axes of the show. In Richard Wolfe’s production Shigematsu stands at a long table, and uses a sliding camera, and miniatures that are projected on the screen behind him, counterpointed with photos from the family album. I loved the scene where he leans over, and blows on a straw to send an origami boat across water, an image of emigration into the great unknown. In a charmer of another scene, his own fingers stand in for father and son, in a replay of an old argument about skateboarding.

That kind of low-tech theatrical wit, in synch with the lovely Japanese-style screens of Pam Johnson’s design, is the right kind of playground for a performer like Shigematsu.

Tetsuro Shigematsu in Empire of the Son. Photo by Raymond Shum.

A veteran broadcaster who’s used to storytelling using only his voice, he sometimes overplays that skill in moments that seem a little “written and rehearsed.” But the man of radio gets to borrow, and rather effortlessly, the rationale lacking in many solo shows — i.e. why on earth is the person onstage spilling the contents of his memory to a bunch of strangers? Radio performers do that all the time. Empire of the Son scarcely needs the dramatic framework of a man working himself up to cry as a dress rehearsal for his father’s funeral.

What does work, wonderfully well, is the fragmentation of multiple stories between three generations. That texture has an impulsive, free-associative quality that’s very compelling. It’s the way memory works after all. And reflections about life, love, and death have a cumulative composition and impact: the more elliptical path is the surest one.

In the end Shigematsu lets the tears be ours. We laugh our way towards them. 


Empire of the Son

Theatre: Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre

Created and performed by: Tetsuro Shigematsu

Where: Citadel Club

Running: through Feb. 18

Tickets: 780-425-1820,

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