Words Fail Japanese Politicians: Kim Itoh’s “Speech Meeting”

The most vocal artistic response to the post-3.11 Japan I have seen so far is dancer Kim Itoh’s Speech Meeting, a send-up of the impotency of Japanese politicians.

The Empty Space readings series, part of F/T11, invited participating artists from the previous Festival/Tokyo events to contribute text-readings at free gatherings around the city. The themes have mostly echoed those of the main festival, that of taking theatre out into the urban community and looking at how we can respond to the March catastrophe.

Into a park in Ikebukuro Itoh enters stridently. He stands atop a mini podium and then delivers his “reading” — actually a twenty-minute performance called Speech Meeting, in the style of a politician’s speech to voters. However, inverting expectations of a “reading”, in fact there are no real words read out at all.

kim itoh politician satire japan festival tokyo

As with much of the Establishment’s response to the crisis, the blatant incompetence and vacuous charade is brilliantly presented as a politician who believes he is giving the speech of a lifetime, and yet his words are muffled or garbled, becoming nothing more than ridiculous gesticulation. Following a similar parade of TEPCO and government press conferences all seeking to reassure a worried and increasingly distrusting public, Itoh suggests that the mandarins and statesmen are essentially merely full of hot air and not much else. But that he muffles his own words, covering his own mouth, is as chilling as much as it is comic, revealing that the leader here is flawed by his own volition.

Picking up the slogan of F/T11 — What can we say? — looking at Itoh’s distressing implications is that even those in power are little more than demagogic buffoons unable to say anything. Watching the performance, live or online, we are then forced to address the nagging question towards ourselves: Well, what can you say then?

Politicians in campaigns in Japan cannot canvas door-to-door due to election rules, and so are limited to making pompous, clamorous speeches in public places, often on top of vans and often to no one in particular except a handful of aficionados. There they harangue the populous with their names on election ribbons worn proudly over their shoulders. It is a spectacle ripe for satire.

However, satire is a rare thing in Japan; like so much, comedy works in different ways here. Certainly mainstream comics and Manzai lean to the slapstick in tone, with gags often loud, physical or rooted in the shock of an insult. Exceptions include esoteric personalities like Torihada Minoru, though they are fringe figures.

Kim Itoh is a dancer and choreographer, trained in Ankoku Butoh and known for his cross-over work. He has also performed all over the world and won many awards. With his undeniably visual features — the shaven head, the eyepatch — he surely harbours a potential second career path as comic.

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