Cheerful Corporate Nightmare: Yukio Shiba’s ‘Swing By’

Is this the next big thing? Recent winner of the Kishida Kunio Award for his musical play Waga Hoshi (Our Planet) — to be revived next April in Mitaka — Yukio Shiba‘s new play under his just-formed unit mamagoto is playing to full houses this month at the intimate Komaba Agora.

Like his previous work it features music and singing, though an enthusiastic, physical start levels off into a darker, at times subdued satire. Swing By is a small play but dealing with big themes: working at a company and being a Japanese salaryman.

Starring several of the great young performers who were in the Gotanndadan double-bill last autumn at the Tokyo Metropolitan Arts Space, Swing By has at the centre of its design a clever conceptual analogy between sport and work. All the audience is given time cards for tickets and asked to clock in when they enter the space. (Time cards in Japan are used even at white collar offices and are an archetype of the corporation.) The auditorium is divided into two seating areas, with football pitch grass between the seats and the playing space itself marked with sports field-looking lines.

After a cheerful beginning full of direct audience address, music and even acrobatics, the play itself starts: new employees are being inducted into the seemingly innouous — but ambigious — Wagasha (literally, “our company”), whose offices are in a vast tower complex. The protagonist is a young newbie already late on his first day due to a suicide on the tracks (“Get used to it, they happen every day. They’re all our colleagues, you know,” jokingly, or sinisterly, warns one worker) and we follow his helpless struggle to find the right room, to locate a replacement time card — and just to try to fit in.

Riding an elevator to travel between floors is a constantly reoccuring scene played in the middle of the space (the penalty spot), where in fact most of the action does take place. Continuing the sports motifs, the rest of the area is essentially “off” and the cast currently not appearing (and there are twelve actors) stand there in rugby scrum poses. Scene changes are sudden, signalled by all the performers jumping and turning in unison.

This fluid marriage of sudden movement and quiet, straightforward dialogue maintains the tempo of the play, since narrative development is minimal. At times reminiscent of Shiro Maeda, Shiba’s imagination is neo-Absurdist: the HR department’s archives are filled with “back numbers” — old staff lying apparently dead, tagged like in the morgue; the cleaning girl, worried that in the future robots will take over her job, is confused by others with her mother, who held the same position before her, and no one knows her real name.

As someone whose own career as a salaryman in a large corporation lasted only a few weeks, I sympathized immensely with this depiction of a jolly team full of comaraderie, but in fact blind to its own inhumanity. The only escape is to the take the elavator as high as it goes, and sneak out onto the roof. There you find one employee who has lost the will to work and has seemingly been skiving off up there for years.

Now Shiba has mastered how to marry his themes with experimentation with form, he needs to look at how to explore fuller narrative and character.

Swing By
March 12 to 28, at Komaba Agora Gekijou

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