Last September Daisuke Miura’s Oshimai no toki (The End Times) was premiered in Shimokitazawa, under the auspices of his potudo-ru company.
This sex psycho-drama unusually for Miura has more of a clear narrative arch and is not just about “young people” (wakamono), featuring two married couples who are ostensibly apparently approaching middle age (at least, their social position is heading in that direction, though their years are still a fair few off it yet), as well as the more typical Miura characters — poorer, rougher, and essentially on the fringes of society (or at least respectability — their poverty is not so much economic as moral and emotional). In this case it is two air conditioner engineers, one a drug addict and with a pregnant girlfriend who is tattooed and ugly. At least in this play Miura shows that the barren affliction of humanity is democratically spread across all social classes and walks of life.
That is not to say the Miura has never portrayed average “salarymen”-types before. They crop up in situations, such as being one of the participants of the swinger party in Love’s Whirlpool. But in this case the setting is predominantly focused on a middle class marriage and gravitates around its lair, a dull but well-furnished condo. Into this comes tragedy (the death of a child), and then (this being Potudo-ru) graphic scenes of rape and sex. What is more surprising is how drug addiction then infringes, forming a portrait of a corrupt bourgeois lifestyle that all too easily collapses within its own husk.
When a married couple’s son dies in an accident, the wife, Tomeko, retreats into a landscape of grief that her husband cannot penetrate. But things change with a seemingly banal episode, when two engineers come to repair her air conditioner and one of them, a gruff and silent near-thug (played by Potudo-ru member Ryotaro Yonemura), stays behind to seduce (or is it assault?) the young wife. This snaps her out of mourning and she promptly begins a passionate affair with the man, even making excuses not to go to her son’s grave in order to enjoy carnal sessions on the floor of her apartment. The engineer himself has a pregnant girlfriend whom he finds ugly and will not touch (she’s an example of so-called busu-yaku, literally “ugly role”), preferring instead to indulge in heroin. However, if you think Tomeko’s husband is merely the victim in all this, think again…
Miura is playing with noir here, right down to the scorching summer setting. In many ways The End Times is seeped in the motifs of a familiar story and genre, that of adultery and the lovers’ plan to kill the wife’s husband. Take out the Japanese context and you could have The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity, Body Heat and numerous famous noirs.
As always Miura is concerned with the ugliness lurking just below the surface of our lives; the slightest scratch will throw it out into the open for all the world to see. “In my plays, the ugliness is on display from the beginning to the end,” he has said. That is certainly true of previous work, though in this new play it is more hidden within the snug cabinet of bourgeois treats, ready to sliver out like a foul plague.
Miura is often keen on well-constructed and slick set designs, frequently depicting multiple spaces and rooms at once. In this case, the stage was indeed split (as if between worlds) — interestingly, it is the large middle class condo that is the “netherworld” below the cramped and simple apartment of the wife’s lover. It also employs more visibly authorial conceits and tools, such as using narration to show the thoughts of Tomeko, with this also forming a kind of deus ex machina at the ambiguous end.
Miura has made his name through extreme In-Yer-Face plays that are semi-documentary in style, with the audience unsure if the actors are genuinely abusing each other. He then switched to more “artificial” forms, though never losing his graphic edge, reaching likely an apogee with Love’s Whirlpool and the wordless Castle of Dreams (shortly to be re-staged in Kyoto and Tokyo).
The End Times sits within this oevure then as the next rung on the journey towards a kind of playwriting that could be at home quite comfortably in the Anglophone world, driven by devices, conventions and narrative — though without sacrificing the essential Miura vision. Up till now he has sought out drama through the “small trembles” in daily life. “So-called dramatic moments do not arrive with life-changing incidents,” he has said. “What I want to do is… depict the ‘little trembles’ which are embedded within our ordinary lives. [...] The very kernel of my play is these tiny trembles.”
The End Times, though, surely has a slightly different kernel. It uses more generic structures and large narrative events (death, adultery, addiction) that are closer to melodrama than his previous plays. It does not feel as original — at least to anyone well-versed in film or theatre — but it is still nonetheless a gripping, chilling and surprising indictment of marriage and partnership, class, and humanity.
Interview quotations from Tokyo Theatre Today: Conversations with Eight Emerging Theatre Artists (2011) by Kyoko Iwaki.