More accustomed to throwing water (and other liquids) around the theatre, Banana Gakuen Theatre Company (previously known as pure BANANA girls class) have this time themselves landed in hot water. Or is it much ado about nothing?
Famed for their extremely physical performances, in which legions of “geek” idols sing, dance and shout in disharmonious unison, Banana’s popular productions are always cacophonous and visceral to say the least.
They reference Akihabara tropes and other subcultures by taking those motifs and adding a heck of a lot of volume, amplification and emphasis. The final result is either a unapologetic celebration, overwrought mimesis, insane pastiche — or parody, depending on your outlook. Their actual theatrical merits beyond revelling in these pop elements is an issue which we will have to leave to another, more considered time.
Their current “controversy” revolves around recent performances at the Ouji Shogekijo in which some members of the audience members are allegedly furious at the way they were literally manhandled when brought up onto the stage. The accusation is that female audience members had their chests and lower bodies touched and groped by male performers, who were masked by “wearing” cardboard boxes.
As usual, Japanese people are taking to Twitter and other semi-anonymous digital media forms to express anger or criticism. It’s not all just tweets of rage, though. There is also a pensive dialogue evolving with those defending the troupe and others considering what the “incident” means for freedom of expression, and the sanctity of the theatre space versus the legality of breaking certain taboos.
The theatre has posted a cautious response on its blog, stating that it is trying to contact the alleged victims and establish veracity in their claims. It does not appear *at present* that anyone has actually directly contacted the theatre or company, let alone the police.
Audience interaction is always a thorny subject and hard to pull off successfully in this very much post-Sixties era. In the same way that every road construction features a plethora of hard hat and flashing baton-bedizened men to shepherd pedestrians around the hazard, performances in Japan are usually highly cordoned affairs, with numerous ushers and other crew and staff making announcements, guiding you to seats and guaranteeing everyone is suitably pampered. Even when there is no fixed seat numbers there will often be a fussy system of “numbered entry tickets” (seiri bangou) for when you can go and claim a pew, all designed to ensure that everything, everyone and everywhere is careful and safe and comfortable.
Banana Gakuen, then, breaks with this mold like a bat outa hell.
One might argue that Japanese audiences, even fringe ones, are not exposed to as much immersive or interactive theatre as hardened ones in Europe or America. But Banana Gakuen are not a new company and have a definite reputation now. When you go to a Banana Gakuen performance you expect to emerge soaked, deafened and sensorially assaulted. Regardless, this is still a step further, and I personally know of at least one veteran and open-minded theatre-goer who felt physically invaded by the aggression on display. He even compared the group to fascism, not least for their irresponsible use of right-wing (uyoku) imagery, presumably employed purely for shallow aesthetic purposes rather than as political statements.
That being said, the title of the performance was, among other things (Banana Gakuen titles are always horrendously long), Rinkan Gakkou (literally, “Gang Bang School”) (輪姦学校), and so perhaps to be shocked or upset is missing the point? Or — it is the point? (With their typically manic linguistic prowess, Banana Gakuen themselves have rendered the full performance title in English as to be to be to be!!!!! BANAGAKU the Shakespeare fucker(a tentative-working-preliminary title). The only response can be “sic”.) The claimants in this online maelstrom were then the “victims” of the theatrical “rape”, though paradoxically that is the word now being earnestly bandied about in the tweets.
Interestingly some of the most vocal people on Twitter at least seem to be other fringe theatre artists as much as regular members of audiences (the theatre world in Japan, especially the fringe scene, can feel very small at times), making it even harder to put this “controversy” into a proper context.
*JULY UPDATE* Banana Gakuen Theatre Company have now issued a formal apology and announced they will disband following their next performance. The company also withdrew from the Festival/Tokyo Emerging Artists Program in the autumn (F/T’s fringe satellite program) and its forthcoming performance was cancelled at Oriza Hirata’s Komaba Agora.