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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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]

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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.

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3 responses to “Going Beyond the Heap of Broken Images: Kein Licht II

  1. Thank you so much for the wonderful review! Was waiting for that eagerly! I think Takayama is one of the most interesting artist these days, also globally – his projects are so involving, not only he keeps audience in amazament all the time but also moves it.
    I wonder what was Motoi Miura’s version like?

    • @Alice:)

      Thank you for kindly reading my blog and for your comment.

      I’ll be writing up an end-of-year round-up soon, including some impressions of Motoi Miura’s production of Kein Licht.

  2. Pingback: 2012: The Year in Japanese Contemporary Theatre | Tokyo Stages

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