Japanese contemporary theatre has failed.
Consider the furore that greeted Caryl Churchill’s Seven Jewish Children earlier this year in London. Churchill is probably the most innovative playwright in the nation; she is certainly the best British female dramatist ever and, along with Stoppard, arguably the greatest living British playwright. Like Beckett’s did as he got older, her work has also grown increasingly minimalist and oblique, though it is refreshing to see her now returning to politics. And what politics. She choose to turn her always pointed eye on Israel and Gaza. Churchill publically advocates the Palestinian cause and the play has been (perhaps predictably) vociferously attacked by many as anti-Semitic. The play is typically bold in form: a brief ten minutes, written in haunting non-rhyming verse of multiple parents’ messages to their children discussing what to tell them about Israel – and what to keep secret.
There have been a plethora of plays in the UK dealing with the Gulf conflict (most notably Black Watch by Gregory Burke and Stuff Happens by David Hare) and other contemporary issues (e.g. the Deepcut Barracks deaths). Churchill’s is not even the first high-profile drama about Israel and the Middle East. We have also had My Name is Rachel Corrie at the Royal Court and the West End. Some of these have explored the documentary drama form, though it is more their content that has attracted attention. In the Nineties with the rise of In-Yer-Face Theatre plays moved away from agitprop and socialist agendas, focusing on malaise, the post modern urban condition. Is political theatre back?
German-language theatre has been quick to react to media storms such as that surrounding Austrian Josef Fritzel, the father who kept his daughter in his basement for twenty-four years and raped her. A play (Pension F by Hubsi Kramar) produced during his trial satirized the TV coverage and demonization of the man. On top of producing international playwrights like Marius von Meyenburg, Dea Loher and Peter Handke, German theatre responds often immediately to the shifts of the zeitgeist.
There is a distinction between relevant, fresh theatre expression and knee-jerk reactions, to jumping on the bandwagon. However, where are the Japanese plays about Article 9 and its reform? Where are the Japanese plays about the poverty that continues to rise? (The poverty that has been here since the Bubble but now worryingly seems to be affecting younger and younger people – creating a whole lost generation of twenty-somethings who live in Internet cafes.)
There has been a lot in the mass media about both these things. There have been lots of demos (though not necessarily well-attended). There are dozens and dozens of new non-fiction books; journalists are fascinated by the topics, it makes good copy. There has also been quite a bit of art about the Constitution issues (in particular Shinya Watanabe’s touring exhibition “Into the Atomic Sunshine”). But where are the plays? As far as I am aware, no one has tried to tackle them. (Come to think, not just stage plays – but where are the films and novels? Of course TV drama is a dead loss here and could never dream of addressing such serious subjects.)
The plays of chelfitsch and Potudo-ru feel very contemporary; they seem to be investigating the lifestyle of the urban young today. But they are examples of In-Yer-Face Theatre and their presence is not enough. (Further, I have yet to see a Japanese play that explores the violence of In-Yer-Face Theatre a la Sarah Kane, Ridley and Nielson.) The most important issues today in Japan (and the world) are being ignored: the plight of the Ainu; whaling; the death penalty; the new jury system; political corruption. Here’s a cracking subject matter: Japanese politics and media is suffused with anti-Semitism (and yet, contradictorily, there are also the Schindler-esque tales of Chiune Sugihara and Kiichiro Higuchi). Dare I say it but where is the Japanese David Hare?
Churchill has also taken the unusual step of having the whole script of Seven Jewish Children (albeit only eight pages in total) available as a PDF, and allowing productions to be staged gratis as long as no charge is made for admission and a collection is made in aid of Gaza. (Sadly the controversial nature of the piece has prevented some productions from taking place.) Admittedly, Churchill is a successful playwright with at least some modest financial reward from her previous work (Top Girls, Cloud Nine, Serious Money), and it no doubt means she can do this kind of thing. (There is even a version available for free viewing on the Guardian’s website.) But would a Japanese writer be willing to do it? Their confinement in the gekidan system means they have very little practical security and could never afford, literally (and literarily) to take this kind of step. But the first step to overcoming those practical difficulties is to have the creative impulse to tackle the subject matter in the first place.