Japanese Theatre Journalism in English

One journalist who I read regularly for coverage of contemporary theatre is Nobuko Tanaka, who writes for the Japan Times. Her articles are available online and range from interviews and features (usually on upcoming productions), to year-end round-ups. There are not many straight reviews, although these can be found on her blog (in Japanese).

The lack of reviews and criticism in Japan is a chronic problem, one that extends beyond the theatre. Tomio Koyoma noted in his recent book Contemporary Art Business the dearth of art criticism in Japan compared to western countries. Though I don’t feel we have to go down the Frank Rich New York Times road, I do think that creating a serious contingent of newspaper theatre critics who publish reviews in tangent (i.e. in their respective newspapers the day after an opening night) would stimulate public awareness of theatre. At present it extends merely to fans of a particular gekidan or hearing of a production because a big star is in it.

Akihiko Senda is someone fairly well known in this field, especially as his writings have been translated. (For example, The Voyage of Contemporary Japanese Theatre [1997], which can be loaned from the Japan Foundation library.) However, he has also been criticised for being too populist, for giving too much space to big-name directors and musicals.

Of course this is all academic unless the whole system changes. Reading Tanaka’s interview with Robert Allan Ackerman is enlightening, in that he also notes that because theatres have to schedule numerous short runs every year, it creates financial pressure that cuts out any chance of artistic development in the commercial sector. Every production must pack in punters for the whole of its two or three weeks, or else it loses money. And, paradoxically, even if it did sell out, with the exceptions of fortuitous scheduling or cynical foresight by the management, it would unlikely be able to extend anyway. Open-ended runs are a rarity here, the reserve of the Blue Man Group and their ilk.

There is quite of a lot of unofficial, amateur criticism but it is not in print, but rather online in the form of blogs and user reviews on websites like Engekilife and CoRich. Though I doubt that Japanese bloggers (and certainly not this one) can achieve the following (and, arguably, even real influence) of, say, the West End Whingers, it is interesting that we have to look to this media for the bulk of criticism. However, it is almost needless to say that the volume of amateur writing on the web easily outweighs the professional in print (and on the web), since in the UK and America it is the same. And, of course, like with their London and New York equivalents, the bloggers and website reviewers are for the most part concerned with the commercial and the mainstream (Hidenori Inoue’s Gekidan Shinkansen et al). Further, neither the development of user-generated content via the internet, nor even a sudden change in theatre journalism in Japan, would immediately result in fringe plays playing to full houses, or the New National Theatre being sold out. Similarly, although the Donmar Warehouse and the Almeida theatres in London have a large following, the individual quality of the productions is what finally matters, in spite of the comparative wealth of reportage. They are the equivalents of the Bunkamura and Setagaya in many ways, and do indeed usually sell out, but arguably because their auditoria are rather small. The occasional dud would likely be playing to empty houses if in fact the venue was larger. Most straight plays in the West End transfer from the subsidised sector (now, that would be an interesting phenomenon to see in Japan!) and sometimes still close early in spite of ticking the boxes (famous lead actors and good reviews).

This blog is esoteric, as is by its nature all writing on Japanese contemporary theatre in English. It is another reason why most books available on the subject are academic. I am of course proposing the development of journalism in Japanese. There is already a strong tradition of annual awards and prizes, so it is just one more step for there next to be a group of regular theatre critics. As much coverage of theatre in Japan is essentially promotional, if such a group were to arise they would have to be truly critical when appropriate.

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