The Most Influential People in Contemporary Japanese Theatre

A no doubt incomplete and subjective list of movers and shakers, and in strictly alphabetical order…

Oriza Hirata

Playwright, director, university professor and founder of Seinendan, Hirata is responsible for the Contemporary Colloquial Theatre in the Nineties, which launched the current generation of performers and artists familiar and confident to use the vernacular and idiosyncratic modes of speech (sounds straightforward enough but this methodology was quite a breakthrough at the time). Seinendan continues to nurture young actors, directors, playwrights and stage managers from its home, the Komaba Agora Theater. Japan lacks specialist drama schools, with most people receiving their training on university programs, so Seinendan plays the role of an on-the-job skills centre. It holds regular mini conferences and showcases, and many successful writer-directors started off as performers attached to the company, such as Shu Matsui.

Hirata is not content to rest on the laurels of success just yet. Though arguably a rather establishment figure — he has even been employed by the government — he continues to work with international collaborations and stage his own work. Perhaps his “Quiet Theatre” realist output has rather lost its original edge in the wake of chelfitsch and Potudo-ru, but he is still producing new innovations, including the Robot-Human Theater project, a short play involving a robotic performer and a human one.

Hidenori Inoue

Whatever your feelings on the super octane quasi-kabuki extravaganzas that Inoue creates under the auspices of Gekidan Shinkansen (a play on the name for the bullet train, though with the characters meaning “new feeling”), it is one of the few groups that can turn a profit without a regular home (i.e. Shiki Theatre Company, Takarazuka et al). Imagine three high-speed hours of massive casts, mic’ed singing, rock music and dancing, fake sword fighting, audio effects galore, and audiences clapping along to the soundtrack… and you are now somewhere on the way to understanding the bizarre, popularist atmosphere that Inoue creates. Even if Japan had proper mainstream media culture reviews Gekidan Shinkansen would be critic-proof.

Hiromi Maruoka

Maruoka and her team run TPAM (Tokyo Performing Arts Market), the main theatre industry trade fair, conference and symposium program that happens in annually. Despite its name it now takes place in Yokohama in the winter, and is the top event to meet reps from key venues and certain touring artists and companies. Many Asian artists and producers also participate, and there are showcases of fringe theatre and dance so that visitors can catch examples of people’s work. TPAM’s move to Yokohama and the opening of KAAT signalled the establishment of the city as a serious cultural host.

Koki Mitani

Few playwrights and directors are as prolific as Mitani, can move seamlessly between film and theatre, and even enjoy celebrity in their own right. His work aims “only” at entertainment but there’s nothing wrong with creating crowd-pleasing hits, especially when he brings out the best in Japan’s most famous performers, proving that even the ubiquitous can act when given decent scripts. He favours ensemble pieces and his success has brought him the authority to bring together performers from different generations, backgrounds and talent agencies, not an easy task in the mainstream Japanese entertainment world.

Satoshi Miyagi

Miyagi runs SPAC, the leading regional performing arts centre in Shizuoka that regularly invites international artists, and commissions new work from the likes Kuro Tanino and Norimizu Ameya, as well as hosts Japanese stagings of playwrights such as Sarah Kane. Miyagi took over SPAC in 2007 after it was founded in 1997 by Tadashi Suzuki as the first European-style public venue in Japan to develop, produce and stage its own theatre work.

Amon Miyamoto

The first Asian to stage a work on Broadway, Miyamoto is known for his musicals and so was a slightly surprising choice in many ways to be appointed as the inaugural artistic director of the Kanagawa Arts Theatre. His first season opened with a production packed with male actors popular with young girls, and inevitably was an immediate sell-out (in more ways than one). Other choices in the programming so far have been bolder, with slots for Rimini Protokoll, chiten, chelfitsch, Hitoshi Sugimoto and many more.

Keiko Miyata

Miyata is the current theatre artistic director for the New National Theatre, a controversial post that saw its last incumbent, Hitoshi Uyama, ignominiously sacked and replaced with the more mainstream Miyata. The brouhaha over her selection and Uyama’s departure in 2008 led to protests from figures such as Hisashi Inoue, Yukio Ninagawa, Yoji Sakate, and Ai Nagai. Since then, however, the programme for the NNTT has been its usual blend of revivals of western and postwar Japanese plays, and some new work. (The dance and opera are handled by separate artistic directors.)

Miyata was born in 1957 and is known for her award-winning work in the commercial theatre. A rare woman director in a land run by men, she took over from Uyama in 2010.

Akane Nakamura

Nakamura runs precog, the production company that has adroitly handled the mainstream success of artists and groups in their twenties and thirties. Founded in 2003 and targeting the same demographic as its rostra of dancers and directors, Nakamura has been instrumental in creating such events as the festival Spectacle in the Farm in Nasu, Tochigi, and an annual showcase, Azumabashi Dance Crossing, both of which focus on introducing fringe or up-and-coming talent to broad, younger audiences. She often tours with precog’s artists and deserves some of the credit for pushing chelfitsch into the critical darling status limelight it enjoys today, for better or worse.

Yukio Ninagawa

Love him or hate him, Ninagawa knows how to stage spectacle and despite his advancing years, has revealed no apparent desire to slow down, let alone even retire from his formidable workload. He also dips his foot into film (for example, in one effort recently he made a star out of a then unknown Yuriko Yoshitaka) and his juggernaut travels overseas occasionally, though London reviews are typically hostile to his takes on Shakespeare. Find the Ninagawa army typically bivouacking at Bunkamura or the Saitama Arts Theatre.

Hideki Noda

It is an unusual and perhaps worrying trend that commercial writers and directors have started to be appointed as heads of public theatres in Japan. Whether or not these are merely PR stunts remains to be seen, though huge amounts of fanfare accompanied Noda’s promotion to be the first Artistic Director of the Metropolitan Art Space, a position strangely that had not existed at the venue before. (There were even peculiar Cult of the Leader-style banners adorning the inside of the theatre for weeks.)

Noda already has enough status as a writer and director these days to command celebrity actors in appear in his plays, and also has the support of cultural foundations to take his work to London (so far, without much critical accolades). Now Noda is in the bizarre position of being able to commission his own work to appear at the Metropolitan Art Space. Still, he remains committed to new writing, through the Geigeki Eyes program showcasing up-and-coming fringe companies.

Toshiki Okada

The playwright, director and novelist shot to stardom with his rightfully acclaimed Free Time and Fives Days in March. Sadly, since then he has done little further innovation, preferring to play the same fiddle on a few variations. However, Five Days in March has toured around the world under the auspices of the Japan Foundation and shows no signs of abating. There are few local idiosyncratic (and at times almost obscurantist) writers and directors under forty who can snap their fingers and receive commissions from public theatres based primarily on their reputation, but Okada is one.

Chiaki Soma

In an industry wholly dominated by male directors and artists, woman tend to populate the ranks of the production team. Chiaki Soma, however, stands out as the first appointed artistic director of Festival/Tokyo, Japan’s leading performing arts event. Trained in France, Soma hopes to establish F/T not just as the best performing arts festival in Asia but also as a portal for building the agencies of criticism that currently most countries in the continent, not least of all Japan, lack.

Akira Takayama

Trained in Germany and de facto Festival/Tokyo director in residence, Takayama is not afraid to tackle the controversial or delicate subjects that many Tokyoites or bureaucrats would prefer to turn a blind eye to: the rising numbers of working poor, internet cafe refugees, nuclear power, minorities, aging population, war crimes… He works using site-specific and interactive performance methodologies, and with customized teams of collaborators for each project. He has taken his work to Austria to great success and is arguably the most sincere theatre artist working in Japan today.

Hon menshes

Tamiya Kuriyama: leading freelance commercial director, former head of the New National Theatre

Yukako Ogura: director of the AI HALL in Osaka

Katsuhiro Ohira: director of the ST Spot, Yokohama

Kuro Tanino: playwright, director, designer, painter, psychiatrist and polymath


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