Tickets are too expensive: Kyoto Experiment 2014’s attempt to change Japanese theatre pricing and venue policies

To say: “I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all”

Incredible as it may seem, this blog has come back to life. It is being resurrected from its long winter sleep for, initially at least, one primary reason. To pay tribute to Yusuke Hashimoto’s brave concept text for the upcoming Kyoto Experiment 2014.

Kyoto Experiment, known as “KEX”, is Japan’s second largest contemporary performing arts festival (TPAM doesn’t really count as a fully fledged festival per se) and 2014 will mark its fifth festival. Any such festival, sharing as it does certain personnel, aims and structures (i.e., it has a proper program director), will undoubtedly appear to and itself feel like it languishes somewhat in the shadow of its bigger pioneer, Festival/Tokyo. KEX, though, has forged its own path, helped by the convenient fact that several key groups and artists are based in the old capital. These have been able to gather around KEX and create buzz for a Kyoto performing arts community, a scene whose existence obviously predates the founding of any formal festival.

I too was guilty somewhat of discarding KEX when it started as just another regional bonanza of subsidy money, another pair of lazy eyes focussed on tourist yen. If we were to start a list of all the biennales, triennales, something-ales and other art events scattered around Japan’s regions, there would be no end. Every year seems to bring yet another, all moulded in the Fram Kitagawa-esque ideal of attracting Tokyoites and media attention, and perhaps — it’s a big perhaps — decelerating the rural downturn. Toga inadvertently started this off, in a manner of speaking, though its model has been replaced by far more grandiose regional bread and circus acts.

Actually, Kyoto is in the fortunate position of not needing this at all. Commercially, culturally, academically and industrially, it is strong. And so it shouldn’t surprise that KEX matured quickly and now has the kudos to bring in the likes of She She Pop for a residency, and this year has scored some real coups, not least the Japan premieres of altered Natives’ Say Yes To Another Excess ⎯ TWERK by Cecilia Bengolea and François Chaignaud, and Tina Satter’s House of Dance.

But it is the concept and the new practical strategies that I want to pay tribute to here.

“Tickets are too expensive”

I chuckled when I first read the title back in July. But then I read on. It’s a sincere and brilliant text, since Hashimoto understands the nature of subsidy very well and the problems that hamper Japanese theatre… and theatres. It is as much about the buildings themselves as the overall culture, for this is a very functional pair of new endeavours.

Let’s start, at the risk of being oblique, with the second one, as it is simplest. Hashimoto has introduced a new ticket pricing system for KEX that is based on the venues. This keep things very simple for audiences (i.e., customers) and also strikes at the heart of what a public festival should be all about.

The ticket price is not the value of the artwork; it is entry price paid for the running of the venue and the festival. In this way we want to introduce a pricing system to KYOTO EXPERIMENT with almost the same meaning as an art museum’s or cinema’s. The Executive Committee operating the festival receives a lot of financial support from many different organizations. This support is for running an international festival and also for creating new artworks. In which case, adding the travel expenses of artists coming from far away and production costs to the ticket prices is strictly speaking against the spirit of the financial subsidy we receive.

Let’s try an explanation from a different approach. Whether it’s from the government or private corporations, the subsidy paid to the arts could be said to be “public” money. The reason it is “public” is that is expected to be paid back broadly and over the long term to the whole of society. It is supporting the opportunity to introduce works of art far and wide to the world, artworks which are the property of society. “Public” money is employed for creating works of art that can also become the property of future inhabitants of society, since it is disproportionate to impose the costs only on current inhabitants.

And that is why at KYOTO EXPERIMENT we want to cut the value of theatregoing free from pricing by so-called ticket costs. We want the value of the theatre experience to be what is created internally in each member of our audience. In other words, we want the act of viewing art to bid farewell to the act of consumption.

This policy could be equally applied with success in other countries. However, Hashimoto’s other main endeavour this year is more specifically Japanese.

Audiences are pampered in Japan. Many plays and performances do not have reserved seating, and so for these the audiences receive seiri bangō, “ordering numbers” — typically decided based on when they purchased their tickets or perhaps when they arrive to pick them up. Audiences are able to arrive a certain time in advance, collect their ticket stamped with its “number” (but it’s not the seat number!), and then have to wait until the auditorium’s doors open, usually half an hour before the performance begins. They are then allowed to enter in batches of around ten, called as per the numbers, after which they can then finally claim their seats… and wait until the performance begins. In other words, there are two “start” times. Since the foyer is usually just an empty space with the box office desk, you don’t have much to do but are expected to arrive when the venue opens so as to collect your ticket in good time and then be allowed to take a seat, with the early birds thus able to stake their place on the “best seats” (actually almost all public theatres and studio spaces in Japan have equally good sight lines).

As the performance is about to begin — i.e., its official start time — the audience is constantly badgered with countless announcements about electronic devices, the running time of the performance, what to do in an emergency, and so on… More often than not, these are repeated live on a loop by members of staff. I have rarely attended a performance that actually began at its scheduled “start time”. They invariably start some minutes “late”, though perhaps it only seems that the delay is caused by all the rigmarole. Either way, it all makes for an overly fussy and smothering atmosphere. Kind of cute in its way, it swiftly becomes tiresome, suffocating and mollycoddling the theatre experience before it has even begun! I once attended a play at a tiny studio theatre in Tokyo and was sitting meekly through the ceremony of the multiple repeated announcements. A French lady next to me turned to her companion. “It’s like being in kindergarten,” she whispered. I couldn’t help laughing with them.

Before we start waxing lyrical about the “Japanese” character and how it likes everything to be ordered and under control — we’ll leave such punditry to The New York Times et al — we should keep in mind that much of this is apparently due to venue requests and tight rules.

It is not the case that the production staff, let alone the artistic and creative team, actually want the audience to have to go through such a convoluted series of hoops before the theatrical event itself can take place. Hashimoto gets this too.

That is why he has banned the “venue opening times” for KEX 2014 performances.

Until now, almost all of the performances presented at KYOTO EXPERIMENT have not used a curtain to divide the stage and the audience seats, and the meaning of this is so that audiences will view the stage space as soon as they enter the venue. In other words, this is the same as saying that theatre itself begins from this point. Fundamentally, the time should come under the control of the director, but in fact auditorium opening times in Japan are set according to the convenience of the venue operators and various conventions. For this reason, we would like to take things back to basics again: the theatre “opens” when you see the stage space. We are returning the time between the venue opening and the start of the performance to our audiences. Please make the most of it as you please.

We would like to translate the slight trouble that will arise from this into the joy that accompanies watching theatre. No doubt things may be a bit crowded just before the performance begins. Some give and take and verbal interaction will also be necessary as you pass through the narrow doorways.

But this will be a catalyst for going back to the origins of the theatre experience – watching something with other people. Audiences will watch theatre while conscious of the breathing and presence of other members of the audience. And that moment when the auditorium goes dark, when you become “alone” and face the stage – this is the special time created by the place we call a theatre.

I can’t say whether there will still be the usual mountain of announcements and all the other ragbag of cossetting, but it’s certainly a start in the right direction.


(Disclosure of interest; I’ve been helping Kyoto Experiment this year with some of their translation.)


This blog is now on semi-permanent hiatus. Though it may occasionally be updated, it is unlikely to feature content regularly again.

Visitors are invited to read my other blog where I am writing about Japanese radicalism:

Roll Up, Roll Up for the Niwa Gekidan Penino Circus

“The affluent society is a society of voyeurs. To each his own kaleidoscope,” Raoul Vaneigem once wrote.

Kuro Tanino
(b.1976) takes us into a voyeuristic kaleidoscope of sorts, though one that is queasy, amusing and baffling to be in. The psychiatrist-cum-theatre artist is a protean director of Ibsen, creator of his own Duchampian psychological fantasies, and a visual artist as well. His sets are integral parts of his vision, whether it be a kind of miniaturized “box theatre” forming a cabinet of curiosities representing the mental landscape of his characters, who are like patients in desperate search of a therapist.

His contribution to Festival/Tokyo 2009 Autumn’s program was “The Town where the Sun and Underwear are Seen”, a play which marked a rare attempt by Tanino to write a conventional script (which he has said was an unhappy experience). However, the star was still the set, a huge cross-section of a building where different rooms housed occupants each with their own sexual hang-ups. Ultimately, the main character was more concerned with euphoric distant opportunities for panchira than the alluring girl standing right by him.

niwa gekidan penino kuro tanino

The Room, Nobody Knows (2012)

Tanino is interested in creating tableaux, with the performers like chess pieces he moves around the board of his fertile mindscape. The overt emphasis — should we say “over-emphasis” — on the set does have ancillary effects, though. For example, “The Town where the Sun and Underwear are Seen” brought in a whole car at the end, only for it to be ultimately used for mere minutes. Don’t expect to be comfortable; Tanino’s favour for elaborate sets often means cramped, crowed theatre spaces.

“Underground” (2006, revived and reworked in 2010) was set in a hospital — like angura theatre, to which Tanino is clearly indebted, he likes to use “misfit” performers and set things in unlikely locations — in which an operation was carried out at times gruesomely over the course of the two hours, eventually culminating in organs being removed and the patient bursting into song. The claustrophobia of the continuing surgery made the tension almost unbearable as the play wore on — until the warbling finale allowed a welcome release of the energy.

Or even when he is working with larger venues, such as “The Town Where the Sun and Underwear Are Seen” (at the Nishi-Sugamo Arts Factory) or “Extase” (at SPAC), he likes to find a space to write and work equivalent to the size, so his imagination can stretch to the physical scale he has to fill when the curtain goes up.

Like Juro Kara and his tent theatre (Tanino also once used a tent to create a play in a disused patch of land in Shinjuku), the plays of Niwa Gekidan Penino, the company that Tanino formed in 2000, are like Edo-era misemono, “exhibits” that were part of the carnival of old Tokyo’s street entertainment. Just as Shuji Terayama and Juro Kara sought to bring the misemono back into the urban realm in the post-war period, so has Tanino inherited this mantel.

The freak show-esque nature of his plays, filled with dwarves, giants and weird creatures, is especially brought to the fore in his Hakobune (“ark”) series of plays, originally based in his Aoyama apartment that he and his Niwa Gekidan Penino team would illegally renovate into a theatre for each production. These included the remarkable “Frustrating Picture Book for Adults”, with its pair of pig and sheep characters dealing with the intrusion of a Gulliver-like boy student who emerges literally from the nether realm beneath their home.

niwa gekidan penino tanino kuro

The Frustrating Picture Book for Adults (2008)

Tanino’s latest, “Box in the Big Trunk”, inspired by the Duchamp piece “Box in a Valise”, has an epic Wunderkammer stage that rotates, each time taking the central male figure — the same student from the “Frustrating Picture Book for Adults” — through different mental and fantasy zones, a series of linked rooms populated with oddball creatures and copious amounts of phallic imagery. In many ways it forms a culmination of the other three Hakobune pieces till now, recycling the same characters and scenarios into one coherent experience whereby the student’s degraded sexual frustration and exam stress is explored with macabre humour. Ever wondered what it is like to hear Pachelbel’s “Canon” played on penis-shaped instruments? Or what a “restaurant in limbo” serves to its patrons? The gallimaufry of surreal dreams and symbols has been packed up into one trunk to be spilled out as it spins around and around.

The endless parade of cocks and copulation might weary some. A joke can outstay its welcome, especially when it is so visual and the characters so larger-than-life. But far from a merely infantile and gratuitous indulgence in comedy of the lavatorial kind, the situations and characters are inspired by a real patient Tanino once treated. The chronic and hyper-sexualized wilderness is then all the more powerful for being rooted in an acute, damaged case.

Recently staged at the Morishita Studio in Tokyo (the Hakobune has been banished from its original Aoyama home, it seems), it will be revived at the Kyoto Experiment in October.

niwa gekidan penino kuro tanino

The Room, Nobody Knows (2012)

“Frustrating Picture Book for Adults” was taken to Europe in 2009 and 2010, where it was greeted, said Tanino in an interview, with enthusiasm for the stark contrast it presented to typical continental social realism. “The Room, Nobody Knows”, one of the three elements featured in “Box in the Big Trunk”, toured in Europe in 2012. It is scheduled to make its Stateside debut at the Walker Art Center and elsewhere in January 2014.

Further Reading Online:

Welcome to Tanino’s Hallucinatory Theatre
Theatre as a surrealist painting – on the latest work of Niwagekidan Penino
Creating Illusionary Spaces: The World of Kuro Tanino
Play of the Month: “Frustrating Picture Book for Adults”
Drama outsider takes a step into the theater

The Occupation of Street Theatre: Shuji Terayama’s “Knock” re-assessed at Watari Museum of Contemporary Art

In the theatre building, imaginary experience and real life are too strongly differentiated; the fine line that separates them is frozen solid. The performance onstage is a reenactment of reality reproduced by stand-ins. It is a safe form of imagination that will not invade the audience’s everyday reality.

Shuji Terayama

Occupy Koenji. Over two nights in the Seventies, the streets of west Tokyo were taken over by a swarm of deviant actors, followed around by audiences amused, bemused and confused in no doubt equal measure.

The thirty-hour performance was “an artistic assault on many fronts in Tokyo’s Suginami Ward” over two nights in April 1975. Coming off the back of the film Death in the Country, it was in many ways the culmination of the high period of experimental work by Shuji Terayama’s troupe Tenjo Sajiki, and the final full-scale outdoor theatre piece they did in the public sphere. The work of their later phase, the last eight years until Terayama’s premature death in 1983, were typically in more conventional spaces, or the time was spent touring in Europe and elsewhere. Knock is arguably the most definitive example of Terayama’s shigaigeki — often translated as “town theatre” or “streets theatre”.

Knock was also an experiment in authorship and text. The roughly eighteen parts were authored by numerous people, including Terayama and Rio Kishida, his frequent script collaborator. Dialogue was numbered and characters were not defined. Needless to say, a lot of freedom and improvisation came into play in the scenes. This extended to the audience too, who, blindfolded and transported around by bus, were given maps and allowed to wander from site (sight) to site over the course of the hours. It was impossible to witness all the spectacles and happenings — and that was not the point. The intention was to make audiences explore the streets, heading into bathhouses, parks, “operating rooms” or, in some (unfortunate? fortunate?) cases, volunteering to be boxed up in crates and transported around Koenji (“human boxing”, as it was called).

tenjo sajiki terayama shuji knock

Terayama once told a German journalist that his drama was neither a happening, nor ritualistic or symbolic — but that it was also all of these at the same time. Knock was an encounter with strangers and fellow complicit on-lookers (yajiuma) — local residents, intruding performers (if you could tell them apart), and fellow spectators. Terayama felt theatre had grown decadent and he wanted to shake it up. He did this by creating a “letter drama”, mailing snatches of “foreign” texts to residents. Fifty people were mailed with official-seeming correspondence, telling them to come to a certain place at a certain time to collect an unspecified lost item. Needless to say, this was on thin legal ice and the police were in fact called.

One of the most famed sections (and the most preserved) is the episode in the public bathhouse. This was theatre in disguise; the actors paid, undressed and entered the communal tub like ordinary customers. The non sequitur dialogue (“It’s man’s actions that create history, not his feelings.”) that had been prepared was Dadaist, arbitrary. The actors could perform what was scripted as they wished, as the mood took them from moment to moment.

Those who carp that local authorities in Japan (and elsewhere) and others make life difficult for putting on performances outdoors or in the streets can take some comfort in knowing that this is not new. Knock was also controversial, being greeted with minor scandal in local papers for the disturbance it caused in west Tokyo (“Troublemaking theatre is rampant,” scorned one newspaper).

The legacy of Knock is currently being commemorated at the Watari Museum of Contemporary Art in central Tokyo.

The Shuji Terayama “Knock” Exhibition runs until October 27th and features videos, photos, writings, posters and other resources from Tenjo Sajiki’s productions. Despite the exhibition title, in fact only one section introduces Knock — the rest focuses on Tenjo Sajiki’s anarchic world as a whole and, while serious fans may not learn much they did not already know, it is nevertheless a good portal for the uninitiated to sample the carnivalesque Terayama landscape.

Watarium is one of the most innovative art museums in Tokyo in its use of space, frequently surprising visitors by taking them onto the roof of the building or into small cubbyholes. It is an appropriate venue for such an exhibition about Knock, given that past projects have also “taken over the neighborhood” as Terayama sought to do. The recent exhibition of fellow social renegade JR’s art saw the locale transformed with giant portraits of the faces of people from tsunami-hit northeast Japan painted onto the entire outside facade of the museum. (They are still there.) Talk about an original billboard ad for the show!

Etsuko Watari, the curator of the museum, has said in an interview in Art Space Tokyo that “to be more radical, we go outdoors.” For an exhibition of French artist’s Fabrice Hybert’s work, the sidewalk from Gaienmae Station was turned into a vegetable garden, leading up to the museum. Likewise, a 2007 exhibition of the work of Barry McGee saw the clean Gaienmae district transformed into a graffiti pleasure zone, with stickers and tags adorning vending machines, streets signs and more.

tenjo sajiki terayama shuji knock

Terayama is actually undergoing a major renaissance right now. A starry production of his late play Lemming was recently staged at the Parco Theatre, and his other oeuvre is frequently revived on the fringe. Poster Hari’s Gallery in Shibuya regularly holds exhibitions of Tenjo Sajiki posters, plus we have seen a wealth of books and “mook” (booklets) published emphasizing the vibrant, photogenic world of Tenjo Sajiki. His films have been re-released on Blu-ray and his poetry, essays and other writings are now available in attractive new paperback editions.

But we should remember that Terayama’s reception in his lifetime was more mixed. Although he was famous enough to get productions on at the new theatre that opened at the Shibuya Parco and tour his work around the world, his personal reputation took a dive when he was arrested for prowling streets at night and allegedly peeping into homes. Although he had supporters, his poetry was actually more acclaimed by the Japanese literary world than his more scatological drama.

Although his troupe were invited to the European and American trendy cultural circuits, some audiences and critics were left bewildered. One New York critic reacted to La Marie-Vision that “it appears to be an intriguing environment in need of a play… Curiously, it is the surface of the show — the costumes, make-up, lights, props and that live scenery — that is glittering and imaginative. It is the interior that is lacking in insight and resonance.” German critics compared Terayama’s work, not favorably, to Hitler, while another American reviewer discarded Instructions to Servants as “nothing more than pornography decorated with pretensions.”

David G Goodman, the scholar who more than any other worked to introduce angura to the west during its peak in the Seventies, overtly preferred the work of more politically radical artists like Juro Kara and Makoto Satoh (the older and more literary Terayama was apolitical), and rarely mentioned, let alone promoted, the output of Tenjo Sajiki as an important element of the scene since it was, in his eyes, a mere facsimile of the European avant-garde.

terayama shuji tenjo sajiki

But dying young is a guaranteed way to ensure a legacy. Terayama’s reputation has been cemented in the years after his early death, not least by the opening of the Terayama Shuji Memorial Museum in 1997 in Aomori, the northern Honshu prefecture of his birth — but which he left long behind to pursue a bohemian career in Tokyo and around the globe.

It helped that after his mother passed away a few years after him, control of his estate grew less stringent and snobby, allowing translations and books long on hold to go to press. Previously known in the west mostly only for his film output, in recent years we have seen a film retrospective at the Tate Modern in London, but also major academic book-length studies by Carol Fisher Sorgenfrei and Steven C Ridgely that emphasize his theatrical work and status as a countercultural impresario.

In the current climate of Japan’s theatre-building boom that is always seeking to create simplistic “black boxes” to sate government desires for local “cultural activities” baubles, many lessons can be learnt from the frenetic, anarchic and arbitrary exploitation of the public domain that Tenjo Sajiki attempted, perhaps most of all in Knock.

The influence of Terayama can be felt today in artists such as Akira Takayama (Port B), whose own brand of “touring” theatre also makes audiences move around local areas and explore new territories, as much as possibly by themselves. Fresh from success at the recent Wiener Festwochen, Takayama has in the past created site-specific outdoor theatre projects in Sugamo, Shimbashi, Ikebukuro and even on a Hato Bus (an echo of Knock) that toured Tokyo. His preference for using man-on-the-street-style video interviews in his projects can also be traced back to Terayama.

The rules and regulations that “protect” the public domain are tougher now, as impromptu street artists and musicians have found out to their frustration in Akihabara and Yoyogi. It would be much harder, perhaps almost impossible today to create a theatre experience like Knock. However, times have changed and we are anyway jaded by work that seeks too obviously to be provocative or “guerilla”. The actions of “controversial” art units like Chim Pom seem more cynical and manufactured than genuinely challenging. At best, they are merely naive.

Anyone waiting for another Terayama to arrive with a messianic caravan of theatrical revolution will ultimately be joining Estragon and Vladimir. It is far better to enjoy the heritage he left behind and look to the future.

terayama shuji tenjo sajiki

Further Reading in English

Experimental Arts in Postwar Japan: Moments of Encounter, Engagement, and Imagined Return
Miryam Sas
Harvard East Asia Monographs (2011)

Japanese Counterculture: The Antiestablishment Art of Terayama Shuji
Steven C. Ridgely
University of Minnesota Press (2010)

Shades of Darkness: Kurogo in the Theater of Terayama Shuji
Yukihide Endo
University of California Press (2006)

Theorizing the Angura Space: avant-garde performance and politics in Japan, 1960-2000
Peter Eckersall
Brill (2006)

Unspeakable Acts: The Avant-garde Theatre of Terayama Shuji and Postwar Japan
Carol Fisher Sorgenfrei
University of Hawaii Press (2005)

Angura: Posters of the Japanese Avant-Garde
David G. Goodman
Princeton Architectural Press (1999)

Alternative Japanese Drama: Ten Plays
Edited by Robert T. Rolf and John K. Gillespie
University of Hawaii Press (1992)

Japanese Drama and Culture in the 1960’s: The Return of the Gods
Edited, translated, and with commentary by David G. Goodman
M.E. Sharpe (1988)

Modern Japanese Drama: An Anthology
Edited and translated by Ted T. Takaya
Columbia University Press (1979)

2012: The Year in Japanese Contemporary Theatre

2012 was always going to be a problematic year.

One year on from that undefinably terrible day in March 2011, when northeast Japan changed surely forever. And yet, unlike 2011, the disaster seems no longer fresh in the mind. TV has moved on; certainly the world press is hardly interested in the political quagmire that the nuclear power argument has initiated, nor that only a fraction of the funds for refugees and shelters have been distributed. Aside from some headline-grabbing stunt-meisters like Chim Pom, the world has lost interest in Japanese artists and their feelings.

Traditionally, catastrophe has been a fruitful stimulant for Japanese theatre. The 1923 Kanto earthquake which destroyed so much of Tokyo at the time directly led to the creation of opportunities for a stronger boom in western-style realist plays written by native playwrights, as new theatre venues were built out of the rubble. In the same way, the end of the war brought Butoh, Angura and other cultural movements that have left a resounding impact not on just Japan but the world.

Time has still to tell what changes “3.11” will bring. So much is different now; so much is not. Yet another election was held this month, ushering in yet another prime minister, though one who held the post before. What is needed is the new, not more of the same.

Theatrically, 2012 was also likewise a mixed bag.

The struggle to give expression to the post-disaster mentality and dilemmas is the paramount issue still gripping the Japanese and one worthy of a longer article in its own right. It is a struggle that will continue to obsess (perhaps self-obsess) the Japanese arts for years to come. Needless to say, as there were attempts in 2011, so were there others in 2012, mostly unsuccessful.

When populist director and writer Suzuki Matsuo, a talented actor and one-time winner of the prestigious Kishida Kunio Drama Award, tried to tack on a post-earthquake theme to his lame “foreigner-in-peril” comedy, Welcome Japan, the results were painful to watch. Dealing with tragedy through humour takes immensely light footing, and Matsuo’s style — packed ensemble plays filled with popular performers all with bombastic slapstick sketches to shine and please their fans — is insultingly inappropriate to the theme. No more of this, please!

One of the best straight plays of 2012 was in fact a revival dating prior to the Tohoku disaster. Mahoroba was originally staged a few years ago and won the Kishida prize in 2008. Its playwright, Ryuta Horai, has had a good run at the New National Theatre recently (he also wrote Enemy that was staged there in 2010) and is settling down as the Hatsudai venue’s most dependable scriptwriter (and he seems to be a much better dramatist when he is not directing his own work as he also does with his own company). The play offered several strong roles for women of different generations, even if the plot was old hat: a rabble of unmarried sisters getting together at the family home in Kyushu for a festival weekend, with the inevitable secrets and lies spilling out. The at times clumsy veering between jokes (yes, the requisite old granny character for comic relief is alive and well) and domestic melodrama worked due to the comfortable cast and receptive audience, and it was pleasant to see a straight play doing well in Tokyo.

For the most part, the theatre scene in Japan is devoid of new writing theatres or such organisations, and with even commissions from commercial or public ventures essentially unsupervised (literary staff or dramaturges do not exist). The result is carte blanche for artists who take on both the writing and directing with their own company of cast and creative team (the fringe scene works basically entirely in this way as well). This does not matter in the commerical theatre since the star sells the tickets and in the public world the producers just trust to the reputation of the artist to deliver something of cultural value.

To offer a contrast to Horai’s play, there was at least one revival that should never have happened but no doubt was given the go-ahead based purely on the status of the artist. Yukiko Motoya, a playwright and director who has transitioned from the fringe to the commercial theatre, also staged her own 2006 award-winning play Distress again this year at the Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre, but this blogger at any rate wishes she hadn’t bothered (nor that public subsidy been used to fund it). A shameful and cringeworthy “comedy”, it purported to deal with a serious topic — bullying in Japanese schools — but offered for the most part only cheap gags about horny older women seducing younger colleagues. While I am reluctant to criticize a female writer in an industry endemically dominated by men, I could find no justification for such a travesty when the theme demanded to be taken seriously.

Hideki Noda's "Egg"

Hideki Noda’s “Egg”

The New National Theatre is run by a director who comes from commercial theatre, a trend that has become endemic in Japan of late. Likewise Ikebukuro’s Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre, newly re-opened and re-named in the autumn, is run by Hideki Noda, the writer-director who has also staged his work with Colin Teevan in London. Noda’s artistic directorship has given us some oddities, not least the continual staging on his own plays — unthinkable except perhaps in a place like Japan where the theatre industry is so onanistic for artists. Given how these days Noda is more interested in casting celebrity actors in his plays than experimenting with form, one might question the worth of him running one of the country’s main public venues. That said, he brings in new audiences aplenty and also surreptitiously manages to sneak in satirical themes that only someone with his calibre could.

Take Egg, his play whose two stars ensured full houses at every performance. It did, though, take a much-needed swipe at Olympic fervour. This is both the decidedly un-British elation that seemed to hold London and the country in a vice over the summer — but also Tokyo’s bureaucrats, who insist on repeating their efforts to harness nostalgia for the 1964 Tokyo Games and crank up residents’ enthusiasm for a further Olympics bid. So far the campaigns have met mostly indifference or derision from locals, while a successful vote from the powers that be has yet to be seen. The conceit of the play was that there had once been a ridiculous sport that may or may not have been part of the Sixties Games. What was true? And what did it matter when the result was such hysteria? Though its trappings had the pungence of commercial star-driven theatre, Noda’s play was interested in how mob and memory make for a dangerous combination.

On the fringe, two established artists made a splash. After The End Times in 2011, Daisuke Miura returned to probably his biggest hit, Love’s Whirlpool (Ai no uzu), taking it to Berlin for its European premiere. Potudo-ru then continued their revivals with Castle of Dreams, re-staged in Kyoto and Tokyo over the autumn. It famously portrays a group of young Tokyoites living like animals in a tiny shared flat. Over around ninety minutes we watch scenes from their existences — scraps, junk food splurges, video game sessions and plenty, plenty of sex. But no verbal communication at all.

Daisuke Miura's "Castle of Dreams"

Daisuke Miura’s “Castle of Dreams”

Toshiki Okada (chelfitsch) finally decided in the wake of the 2011 disaster to adjust his now famous style (dialogue in fragmented snatches, anonymous characters, externalized anomie through incongruous movement). Though April’s Genzaichi (Current Location) was publicized by all the hipster media as THE definitive “post-3.11″ work, just judging purely by the format of Okada’s response, the hype was rather anti-climatic. Dressed up in sci-fi-esque symbolism and fable-like allegory, what was the most telling difference about the play was that his characters now largely stood still (shock!), even actually almost looking at each other when they conversed. In other words, Okada had moved towards making a normal play, ordinary “fiction”, albeit still one without structure or plot or character development. Was Okada suggesting that communication is what is needed now? Well, if that is the case, of course he is right, though one wonders if, on the other hand, we then needed his 100-minute play to tell us that. (Or perhaps I am being grossly optimistic and we do?) But why should Okada care about critical flak? He has commissions coming out of his ears; his new project is an opera written for a virtual idol character called Hatsune Miku.

In May, a fierce debate erupted on the fringe scene due to the antics of Banana Gakuen Theatre Company, the bizarre troupe of performers who create hyperactive versions of Akihabara subcultural idol events — though for what purpose (imitation? parody? tribute?) it remains to be seen. They have built a reputation over the last few years for their aggressive involvement of the audiences — from pelting them with objects and liquids, to pulling them onto the stage.

Controversy erupted after one performance in which audience members complained that they had been groped — or at least that their manhandling by masked male performers unintentionally constituted groping (groping is far more serious in Japan and is a major problem on crowded trains). The controversy went viral on Twitter with third parties and those who had not even attended the performance, all baying for the blood of the group. Whether or not this time the admittedly naive Banana boys and girls strayed over the line is one thing — but no audience could surely have been under delusions before they went to see their show, given the reputation of the company. In the end, though, the group announced it would be disbanding to satisfy the calls for atonement. Execution by SNS: such Twittermob “bashing” has grown to be a grave issue locally, since the at times nefarious social network is immensely popular, particularly with male users who enjoy the benefits of anonymity while stirring the hornet’s nest of “public” indignation.

The nation’s biggest annual performing arts event, Festival/Tokyo returned in October and November with its now customarily ambitious line-up of major overseas talents and local artists. [Disclosure: This writer works as a translator for the festival.] The programming this year included Jossi Wieler, Jean-Michel Bruyère and Saburo Teshigawara, though the centrepiece was a trilogy of plays by Austrian Nobel Prize-winner Elfriede Jelinek. To programme the bulk of your festival around a playwright and novelist obscure even in the English-speaking world, let alone an Asian country on the other side of the globe, takes some doing — but when two of the plays are based on Fukushima-inspired texts, there can be no question about its relevance.

"Kein Licht." by Elfriede Jelinek, directed by Motoi Miura

“Kein Licht.” by Elfriede Jelinek, directed by Motoi Miura

Jelinek wrote Kein Licht. straight after the 2011 earthquake and the text has already been performed in the German theatre. It features a pair of violinists talking to us in the darkness (this is a typical Jelinek wordplay — Geiger means violin in German but also infers radition), seeming to existing in an ambiguous limbo, both witnesses and victims. For the Tokyo premiere, directed with epic bravado by Motoi Miura (Chiten) at the Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre, there was one significant chance: the musicians did not play their instruments. Instead the sounds came from the onomatopoeic Japanese dialogue, almost sung by the cast, who wore diving gear, like lost souls on the banks of the rivers of the underworld. A peculiar chorus lay “under” the stage, only their feet sticking out and visible to the audience. The title is a rift on Goethe’s famous last words — mehr Licht! — calling for light to brought nearer as he expired. Following the Fukushima crisis, Tokyo was literally blackened out. Miura’s production seized on this key motif, the darkness slashed by the cube of light at the back of the stage, a shaft both celestial and despairing, tempting us with illumination that would close periodically on the purgatory.

An epilogue written by Jelinek one year on formed the basis for Akira Takayama‘s Kein Licht II, a site specific audio walking tour in Shimbashi, the old business district in central Tokyo (and not coincidentally, home to the headquarters of Tokyo Electric Power Company). Participants received a small transistor radio and a set of postcards, on the back of each were numbered maps to the next location on the route. Then they were sent out into the city to find the locations.

At each site (office room, plaza, abandoned lot or in front of a Pachinko Parlor or company showroom) participants tuned into one of the voices of Fukushima students nonchalantly reading Jelinek’s text. Meanwhile the “tourist” would take in the recreation of the image on the postcard, a scene selected from thousands of media photographs of the Fukushima events. The mass of imagery is thus cut through by the penetrating purity and rawness of the voices of children, the direct victims of a disaster we feel we all know, but actually have not experienced.

"Kein Licht II" by Akira Takayama

“Kein Licht II” by Akira Takayama

In 2011 Takayama also created a fictional “Referendum” on the issue of the current state of Japan: a mobile booth that toured the country, inviting audiences to visit, watch interviews with school students about their hopes (or not) for Japan at that time, and then to “vote” by answering the same questions themselves. Takayama has continued this project in 2012 as well, aiming to create a kind of time capsule of the post-disaster zeitgeist.

And what a way to end 2012 but with some more controversy? Yukio Ninagawa, the local industry giant who at nearly eighty seems to want to never stop directing at all, finished 2012 with a bang with his production of The Trojan Women, that is a co-production with Tel Aviv’s Cameri Theatre, and a mixed Japanese, Israeli and Israeli-Arab cast. Unfortunately, with the recent situation in Gaza, the timing for what Ninagawa no doubt sincerely hoped would be a project promoting practical cultural exchange has been overshadowed by those with far less worthy ambitions.

Lost for words: Takuya Murakawa’s reflection on Tohoku

Direction: Takuya Murakawa [Japan]
November 8 (Thu) – November 11 (Sun), 2012

Adorno famously said that after Auschwitz, to write poetry was barbaric. A now hackneyed quote wrenched aphoristically out of context, indeed, but nonetheless this is much like the dilemma facing Japanese artists today. How do you turn the Tohoku and Fukushima catastrophes into art? Is it possible? Or is it offensive to even try?

One approach is verbatim theatre.

Following his acclaimed 2011 docu-theatre project Zeitgeber, which looked at the quiet dignity in the occupation of a care-worker, film-maker and theatre director Takuya Murakawa returned to Festival/Tokyo to present a brand new piece, the result of voluntary field work and a road trip in Tohoku following the March 11th catastrophe.

Introduced by Murakawa himself in his usual casual style, words (Kotoba) at the Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre, Theatre East was a meditation on an “amateur” attempt to express an experience of the post-disaster world.

Takuya Murakawa

Takuya Murakawa

Murakawa, in his trademark baseball cap, first explained that we were about to witness the performance and asked us to note the microphones set up in front of us and hanging above us. These would be turned on at certain times.

He then handed things over to the “cast”: two speakers, a man and woman, who narrated without drama their experiences, observations and stories of travelling in Tohoku and volunteering in the disaster zones.

Image: © Tsukasa Aoki

Image: © Tsukasa Aoki

For the next ninety minutes on a stage devoid of anything except two chairs and two speakers they took it in turns to talk: it was simple, with no “dramatization” or attempt at reconstruction of the trip — but this very simplicity then took on a resonance, a poetical sound.

The two speakers did not speak to each other. Instead their exchanges were polite alternations: “words” ranging from the harrowing (finding bones) to the banal (snippets of a pop song); from stories and snatches of dialogue of meeting locals to finding rubble in a toilet when desperate to have a shit, or seeing a firework display in Rikuzentakata.

It would veer from the comic to the chilling, but it was always straightforward. Only the man occasionally almost seemed to “act out” his experiences. He spoke in a slang, while the girl was more reserved and formal in her Japanese.

Image: © Tsukasa Aoki

Image: © Tsukasa Aoki

The microphones facing the audience and over our heads would be turned on when the two speakers paused and the audience was lit up. As Murakawa had explained, this was the moment when we were invited to speak and contribute — perhaps with our own experiences or thoughts on what had been said. No one did. The microphones (and the silence) merely reverberated, alone; a challenge, a condemnation? The echo embarrassed us — every shift, every cough was picked up and resonated back to us all, like a sound chamber confessional. There is a possible play on shindou at work here; depending on the way you write it this could be “vibration” or “tremor”. Thus sound and tremors are related, though silence is necessary not anechoic — something will bounce back and respond. And yet we are impotent, mutes who can only watch what is put on a stage for us.

Following a rather unsuccessful and under-used photo slideshow that slightly clumsily appeared halfway through, in the latter part of the performance a signer, who had previously been standing at the side and (in a relay with a colleague) providing sign language interpretation of the two speakers’ accounts, actually came on to centre stage. We then watched her, learning the gestures and how the words translated visually.

The ninety minutes finished with the girl warning of an “earthquake” seemingly happening right now. As the lights went down, we could see the signer fading into the dark, a provocation to our linguistic impairment.

Image: © Tsukasa Aoki

Image: © Tsukasa Aoki

There was also an unintended double effect in watching the performance as a non-native Japanese speaker, meaning I was yet a further step away from the “words” and being able to understand them, to share in them — and to contribute my own.

And this is the current double bind: the Japanese (or, everyone residing in Japan) are all participants (toujisha) in the tragedy of Tohoku — and yet, we also are not. Like the characters in Jelinek’s Rechnitz: Das Würgeengel, we are simultaneously, ambiguously reporters, observers, participants — sharing the experience of the victims in part but also detached from the real victims. Distant, and due to this, potentially complicit in a obscure crime of non-participation, an impossible empathy.

Going Beyond the Heap of Broken Images: Kein Licht II

F/T12 Jelinek Series: Kein Licht Ⅱ
Port B
Text: Elfriede Jelinek [Austria]
Concept, Direction: Akira Takayama [Japan]
November 10 (Sat) – November 25 (Sun), 2012

Kein Wort der Wahrheit haben sie ungesagt gelassen, sagen die, die es nicht gesehen haben können. Als Augenzeugin sage ich: Jedes Wort der Wahrheit ungesagt geblieben.

Akira Takayama, known for his interactive and tour-style “performances”, and creative process involving people drawn from outside the theatre world, has achieved what may be his most successful work to date.

Adapted from Elfriede Jelinek’s text Fukushima – Epilog?, a follow-up to Kein Licht., the poetic treatment of the Fukushima crisis she wrote immediately after the March 11th catastrophe, Akira Takayama and his unit Port B have pulled off likely the most original and effective examination of the disaster not only in Japanese contemporary theatre, but in all the arts to date. Forget attention-grabbing fraudsters like Chim Pom, Kein Licht II was an intelligent, brave and sincere approach to the post-Fukushima zeitgeist.

Taking Jelinek’s text, in an ambitious and award-winning translation by Tatsuki Hayashi (who also provided the Japanese for Motoi Miura’s production of Kein Licht., which ran concurrently in Ikebukuro), Takayama asked female high school students still living just outside the exclusion zone in Fukushima to look at fragments of the text. They then chose the parts they liked and, without any interference or direction, recorded their reading of the section. Since they still live just outside the no man’s land, it is possible to conclude that the children’s parents might even work for TEPCO, the power company responsible for the Fukushima power plant, and that they will be the first to feel any side effects should the exclusion zone prove inadequate. With this knowledge, their aural rendition of Jelinek’s text becomes incredibly raw and real — much more so than if it had been read by actors.


Takayama is interested in the relationship between radio and radiation, and incorporated this “old” technology into his project. Audience members would gather at a reception desk inside the wonderfully decrepit New Shimbashi Building, right outside Shimbashi Station in the heart of “salaryman town” in Tokyo. The area is the site of a former post-war black market and then became the centre of Japan’s economic boon years. Now, though, it is populated merely by the less glamorous of Japan’s corporate slaves, with all the stylish shops and offices these days located in Shibuya et al. Like a concrete Ozymandias, Shimbashi stands as a symbol of Japanese modernity; it was here that the country’s first railway line started, running to Yokohama. And a stone’s throw away from the area is Hibiya Park, the most popular site of protest marches in Tokyo, and also Kasumigaseki, where the nation’s bureaucrats hold away.

The New Shimbashi Building itself is a richly retro lair of old fashioned kissaten coffee shops, cramped shops, VHS shacks, suspicious Chinese massage parlors, and even clinics and other facilities. It has clearly seen better days. It was opened in 1971, the same time as the Fukushima nuclear plant went into operation and just after the Osaka Expo, which cemented Japan’s resurrection as a respected world power again. TEPCO is also based in Shimbashi and we can infer here the open secret: regions like Fukushima were seduced by generous investment into a double bind — to provide the power to fuel the economic boom enjoyed largely by Tokyo but at the cost of bearing the burden should anything go wrong. And we now know how things turned out.

At the reception visitors were handed a small radio and a pack of twelve postcards, which at first glance resembled sightseeing postcards, designed with a photograph on one side and writing on the back. You were a tourist now and sent out to follow the trail to your first spot.

The postcards, though, are immediately unsettling because the images are all media ones from the Tohoku disaster and Fukushima crisis. Takayama is here investigating the nature of photography itself. He worked closely with a photographer and chose the postcard images from thousands of press photographs, deliberately pinpointing moments when a “media” image and a personalized one might overlap in a shutter moment of ambiguity. In today’s labyrinthine digital world of individual blogs, Google Image, Flickr and tumblr, the division is hard to make. The objective and subjective, the public and the private — it is all washed away in the tidal wave of simulacrum. The endless YouTube videos of the water smashing over the Japanese fields. The TV footage of the helicopters desperately trying to cool down the reactors by crudely dumping water onto the chimneys. The darkened streets of central Tokyo as the city attempted to save energy over the summer.

More disturbing has been the landslide of imagery of the earthquake and tsunami damage, and the abandoned ruins from inside the Fukushima exclusion zone: in its sheer volume it takes on another character — a pornographic lensing of suffering and crisis. Similar things happened with 9/11, Detroit, Hurricane Katrina. Truly, to borrow T.S. Eliot’s phrase, a heap of broken images. “Since the catastrophe I have had many opportunities to see press photographs, but I always feel full of regret somehow,” says Takayama. “The landscape reflected there has absolutely no connection with me and yet there is a sense that it has become part of me. There is no way that I have ever entered the Fukushima exclusion zone but after one and a half years, the landscape of that place has woven itself up inside me.” [Tokyo / Scene #3 (Published October 20th, 2012) Artistic Expression in the Time of Cruelty]

What is necessary here is an act of mourning, of reflection and repentance — something that cannot sincerely be achieved now with imagery alone.


The tour participants followed the maps and directions on the backs of the postcards to go by themselves to the dozen locations around Shimbashi. Each site reflected the respective media image on the front of the postcard; either a complete recreation (some of these were remarkable — rooms in anonymous empty offices were turned into Japanese homes, complete with every object and detail from the original image) or a symbolic “re-take” (the cracked soil, dried mud from the tsunami wave, was re-imagined as a tucked-away minor plaza accusingly near to TEPCO’s headquarters).

The journey itself was circuitous and fun as you wove amongst the late afternoon and evening office workers, heading up random staircases, through narrow alleyways. Occasionally you spotted other tour participants and exchanged a fraternal smile. You uncovered hidden shrines, miniature meeting room spaces, empty lots. The logistics of organizing a Port B project like this are immense. The reward, though, is a unique urban experience you would never have as a regular pedestrian, or an ordinary theatre-goer. Takayama has previously pulled off this kind of exploratory stunt with The Complete Manual of Evacuation (2010), which saw participants answer an online personality test and then, depending on the result, directed to random places around the Yamanote train line in Tokyo and there encounter urban minority groups.


In this respect, Takayama is the inheritor to the Sixties’ Angura counterculture concept of shigakigeki “city theatre”, most famously as practised by Shuji Terayama, who would turn whole streets and locales into his “theatre” for multi-hour marathons where audiences explored the urban space in carnivalesque riots of the macabre.

He is uneasy about this heritage, though. Takayama uses some similar techniques to Terayama, such as street interviews, but is doubtful whether Terayama’s city theatre would provoke contemporary audiences jaded to guerilla tactics. It would become just another spectacle, maintaining the binary of audience/performance. “In today’s society, I think we need to develop a more deft methodology that can implant theatre inside the city, one that removes the audience’s feeling of isolation [from the performance]. If I explain by using a metaphor of dreaming, when someone is strongly stimulated while asleep, he or she will wake up and start analyzing the dreams they were just having. I think Terayama’s theatre is similar to this. Because the stimulus is so strong, the audience winds up waking up. But what I want to do is to create a system where people dream but are not aware of the fact that they are dreaming. In other words, I want to devise theatre that doesn’t appear to be ‘theatre’. I believe that this is where the possibilities for contemporary theatre lie in today’s society.” [Tokyo Theatre Today, Kyoko Iwaki]

The low-fi tech used in the roughly two-hour performance — small transistor radios hung from the necks of the participants — emphasizes how you are looking back to Japan’s post-war period and investigating its legacy. As you would arrive at each spot, you then tuned the frequency of the radio to what was indicated on each postcard and then you heard the sounds of the children reading Jelinek’s text. Their voices rung true, rendering the Austrian writer’s typically oblique and circular wordplay into something more direct and comprehensible. Emotional response can be hard to pull off with site-specific theatre and yet this event was incredible moving. The voices came from the mouths of local people — the most involved of all people in the current crisis — and, since it forced you to listen when normally you are overwhelmed by visuals, it cut through the mountain of images and noise that has been inexorably increasing ever since that mid-afternoon moment on March 11th, 2011, when tsunami waves crashed towards the cost of northeast Japan.


By focusing exclusively on the voices of toujisha (the involved) and by making the audience “involved” through its interactive nature, the project succeeds in stimulating and moving much more so than any dramatic treatment of the text could have. Jelinek’s text is filled with references to burial (begraben) and the tragedy of Antigone, in which internment and dealing with the dead was made a state crime. Figuratively speaking, the dead are still rotting in Fukushima, since their tragedies have yet to find closure. (The girls reading Jelinek’s text are all Antigone.)

Takayama’s approach is deliberately non-provocative; he is not “political” in the obvious sense of the word. He invites participants to reflect through the experience he provides. “I have no vision,” he says. “I cannot propose a system for building consensus… It’s like I’ve devoted myself to the work of listening just to voices, and the more I think about it the more it seems that I’m not heading towards activism. It’s like I’m standing there in a stupor.” [Tokyo / Scene #3]


Last year he created the Referendum Project for Festival/Tokyo 2011, a touring truck showing interviews with Tokyo and Fukushima school children on the state. Visitors could watch the interviews they wanted and then “vote” by answering the same questions on a “ballot sheet” and then posting this in a box inside. Adopting his usual quiet, roundabout way to the theme, it was nonetheless a theatricalized referendum (Japan has never had a national referendum), inducing audiences to listen, to think and then to share. At the time, though, with the disaster still very fresh in the mind, somehow this reflective approach felt too indirect. We were craving action. Now enough time has gone by and we see the inadequacy of just shouting. Kein Licht II succeeds precisely because of its implicitness, in how it eschews didacticism.

To return to T.S. Eliot again, The Wasteland famously opens with a section entitled The Burial of the Dead.

That corpse you planted last year in your garden,
Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?
Or has the sudden frost disturbed its bed?
Oh keep the Dog far hence, that’s friend to men,
Or with his nails he’ll dig it up again!

Its intonations are the more chilling when we consider the animals roaming Fukushima, the corpses awaiting a proper tomb.

Exploring Shimbashi and the “gap” that exists between reality, the images and the voices, you come to see Tokyo, as Eliot saw London, as an “Unreal City”.

Photo: Eiji Kobayashi

Photo: Eiji Kobayashi

[Image Source]

But some things have been buried — responsibility, the future, recompense — and these must be exhumed. There can be no greater offense to the twenty thousand dead and the hundreds of thousands of displaced refugees than the amnesia that Tokyo is currently willingly undergoing.

The authorities have turned dealing with the crisis into a taboo. It is doing nothing to deal with TEPCO’s mess, not least because governments like Tokyo city itself are major shareholders and want to protect their own interests rather than break up the company. No real solution to the nation’s grave energy crisis has been proposed by the public sector as of yet. Swept under the carpet, the media is drowning in tidbits about fatuous entertainment machines like AKB48, fed to them by ad agencies. The real issues are only being addressed by a handful of journalists, thinkers and artists. Akira Takayama can now claim his rightful place as one of their leaders.