2012 was always going to be a problematic year.
One year on from that undefinably terrible day in March 2011, when northeast Japan changed surely forever. And yet, unlike 2011, the disaster seems no longer fresh in the mind. TV has moved on; certainly the world press is hardly interested in the political quagmire that the nuclear power argument has initiated, nor that only a fraction of the funds for refugees and shelters have been distributed. Aside from some headline-grabbing stunt-meisters like Chim Pom, the world has lost interest in Japanese artists and their feelings.
Traditionally, catastrophe has been a fruitful stimulant for Japanese theatre. The 1923 Kanto earthquake which destroyed so much of Tokyo at the time directly led to the creation of opportunities for a stronger boom in western-style realist plays written by native playwrights, as new theatre venues were built out of the rubble. In the same way, the end of the war brought Butoh, Angura and other cultural movements that have left a resounding impact not on just Japan but the world.
Time has still to tell what changes “3.11” will bring. So much is different now; so much is not. Yet another election was held this month, ushering in yet another prime minister, though one who held the post before. What is needed is the new, not more of the same.
Theatrically, 2012 was also likewise a mixed bag.
The struggle to give expression to the post-disaster mentality and dilemmas is the paramount issue still gripping the Japanese and one worthy of a longer article in its own right. It is a struggle that will continue to obsess (perhaps self-obsess) the Japanese arts for years to come. Needless to say, as there were attempts in 2011, so were there others in 2012, mostly unsuccessful.
When populist director and writer Suzuki Matsuo, a talented actor and one-time winner of the prestigious Kishida Kunio Drama Award, tried to tack on a post-earthquake theme to his lame “foreigner-in-peril” comedy, Welcome Japan, the results were painful to watch. Dealing with tragedy through humour takes immensely light footing, and Matsuo’s style — packed ensemble plays filled with popular performers all with bombastic slapstick sketches to shine and please their fans — is insultingly inappropriate to the theme. No more of this, please!
One of the best straight plays of 2012 was in fact a revival dating prior to the Tohoku disaster. Mahoroba was originally staged a few years ago and won the Kishida prize in 2008. Its playwright, Ryuta Horai, has had a good run at the New National Theatre recently (he also wrote Enemy that was staged there in 2010) and is settling down as the Hatsudai venue’s most dependable scriptwriter (and he seems to be a much better dramatist when he is not directing his own work as he also does with his own company). The play offered several strong roles for women of different generations, even if the plot was old hat: a rabble of unmarried sisters getting together at the family home in Kyushu for a festival weekend, with the inevitable secrets and lies spilling out. The at times clumsy veering between jokes (yes, the requisite old granny character for comic relief is alive and well) and domestic melodrama worked due to the comfortable cast and receptive audience, and it was pleasant to see a straight play doing well in Tokyo.
For the most part, the theatre scene in Japan is devoid of new writing theatres or such organisations, and with even commissions from commercial or public ventures essentially unsupervised (literary staff or dramaturges do not exist). The result is carte blanche for artists who take on both the writing and directing with their own company of cast and creative team (the fringe scene works basically entirely in this way as well). This does not matter in the commerical theatre since the star sells the tickets and in the public world the producers just trust to the reputation of the artist to deliver something of cultural value.
To offer a contrast to Horai’s play, there was at least one revival that should never have happened but no doubt was given the go-ahead based purely on the status of the artist. Yukiko Motoya, a playwright and director who has transitioned from the fringe to the commercial theatre, also staged her own 2006 award-winning play Distress again this year at the Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre, but this blogger at any rate wishes she hadn’t bothered (nor that public subsidy been used to fund it). A shameful and cringeworthy “comedy”, it purported to deal with a serious topic — bullying in Japanese schools — but offered for the most part only cheap gags about horny older women seducing younger colleagues. While I am reluctant to criticize a female writer in an industry endemically dominated by men, I could find no justification for such a travesty when the theme demanded to be taken seriously.
The New National Theatre is run by a director who comes from commercial theatre, a trend that has become endemic in Japan of late. Likewise Ikebukuro’s Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre, newly re-opened and re-named in the autumn, is run by Hideki Noda, the writer-director who has also staged his work with Colin Teevan in London. Noda’s artistic directorship has given us some oddities, not least the continual staging on his own plays — unthinkable except perhaps in a place like Japan where the theatre industry is so onanistic for artists. Given how these days Noda is more interested in casting celebrity actors in his plays than experimenting with form, one might question the worth of him running one of the country’s main public venues. That said, he brings in new audiences aplenty and also surreptitiously manages to sneak in satirical themes that only someone with his calibre could.
Take Egg, his play whose two stars ensured full houses at every performance. It did, though, take a much-needed swipe at Olympic fervour. This is both the decidedly un-British elation that seemed to hold London and the country in a vice over the summer — but also Tokyo’s bureaucrats, who insist on repeating their efforts to harness nostalgia for the 1964 Tokyo Games and crank up residents’ enthusiasm for a further Olympics bid. So far the campaigns have met mostly indifference or derision from locals, while a successful vote from the powers that be has yet to be seen. The conceit of the play was that there had once been a ridiculous sport that may or may not have been part of the Sixties Games. What was true? And what did it matter when the result was such hysteria? Though its trappings had the pungence of commercial star-driven theatre, Noda’s play was interested in how mob and memory make for a dangerous combination.
On the fringe, two established artists made a splash. After The End Times in 2011, Daisuke Miura returned to probably his biggest hit, Love’s Whirlpool (Ai no uzu), taking it to Berlin for its European premiere. Potudo-ru then continued their revivals with Castle of Dreams, re-staged in Kyoto and Tokyo over the autumn. It famously portrays a group of young Tokyoites living like animals in a tiny shared flat. Over around ninety minutes we watch scenes from their existences — scraps, junk food splurges, video game sessions and plenty, plenty of sex. But no verbal communication at all.
Toshiki Okada (chelfitsch) finally decided in the wake of the 2011 disaster to adjust his now famous style (dialogue in fragmented snatches, anonymous characters, externalized anomie through incongruous movement). Though April’s Genzaichi (Current Location) was publicized by all the hipster media as THE definitive “post-3.11” work, just judging purely by the format of Okada’s response, the hype was rather anti-climatic. Dressed up in sci-fi-esque symbolism and fable-like allegory, what was the most telling difference about the play was that his characters now largely stood still (shock!), even actually almost looking at each other when they conversed. In other words, Okada had moved towards making a normal play, ordinary “fiction”, albeit still one without structure or plot or character development. Was Okada suggesting that communication is what is needed now? Well, if that is the case, of course he is right, though one wonders if, on the other hand, we then needed his 100-minute play to tell us that. (Or perhaps I am being grossly optimistic and we do?) But why should Okada care about critical flak? He has commissions coming out of his ears; his new project is an opera written for a virtual idol character called Hatsune Miku.
In May, a fierce debate erupted on the fringe scene due to the antics of Banana Gakuen Theatre Company, the bizarre troupe of performers who create hyperactive versions of Akihabara subcultural idol events — though for what purpose (imitation? parody? tribute?) it remains to be seen. They have built a reputation over the last few years for their aggressive involvement of the audiences — from pelting them with objects and liquids, to pulling them onto the stage.
Controversy erupted after one performance in which audience members complained that they had been groped — or at least that their manhandling by masked male performers unintentionally constituted groping (groping is far more serious in Japan and is a major problem on crowded trains). The controversy went viral on Twitter with third parties and those who had not even attended the performance, all baying for the blood of the group. Whether or not this time the admittedly naive Banana boys and girls strayed over the line is one thing — but no audience could surely have been under delusions before they went to see their show, given the reputation of the company. In the end, though, the group announced it would be disbanding to satisfy the calls for atonement. Execution by SNS: such Twittermob “bashing” has grown to be a grave issue locally, since the at times nefarious social network is immensely popular, particularly with male users who enjoy the benefits of anonymity while stirring the hornet’s nest of “public” indignation.
The nation’s biggest annual performing arts event, Festival/Tokyo returned in October and November with its now customarily ambitious line-up of major overseas talents and local artists. [Disclosure: This writer works as a translator for the festival.] The programming this year included Jossi Wieler, Jean-Michel Bruyère and Saburo Teshigawara, though the centrepiece was a trilogy of plays by Austrian Nobel Prize-winner Elfriede Jelinek. To programme the bulk of your festival around a playwright and novelist obscure even in the English-speaking world, let alone an Asian country on the other side of the globe, takes some doing — but when two of the plays are based on Fukushima-inspired texts, there can be no question about its relevance.
Jelinek wrote Kein Licht. straight after the 2011 earthquake and the text has already been performed in the German theatre. It features a pair of violinists talking to us in the darkness (this is a typical Jelinek wordplay — Geiger means violin in German but also infers radition), seeming to existing in an ambiguous limbo, both witnesses and victims. For the Tokyo premiere, directed with epic bravado by Motoi Miura (Chiten) at the Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre, there was one significant chance: the musicians did not play their instruments. Instead the sounds came from the onomatopoeic Japanese dialogue, almost sung by the cast, who wore diving gear, like lost souls on the banks of the rivers of the underworld. A peculiar chorus lay “under” the stage, only their feet sticking out and visible to the audience. The title is a rift on Goethe’s famous last words — mehr Licht! — calling for light to brought nearer as he expired. Following the Fukushima crisis, Tokyo was literally blackened out. Miura’s production seized on this key motif, the darkness slashed by the cube of light at the back of the stage, a shaft both celestial and despairing, tempting us with illumination that would close periodically on the purgatory.
An epilogue written by Jelinek one year on formed the basis for Akira Takayama‘s Kein Licht II, a site specific audio walking tour in Shimbashi, the old business district in central Tokyo (and not coincidentally, home to the headquarters of Tokyo Electric Power Company). Participants received a small transistor radio and a set of postcards, on the back of each were numbered maps to the next location on the route. Then they were sent out into the city to find the locations.
At each site (office room, plaza, abandoned lot or in front of a Pachinko Parlor or company showroom) participants tuned into one of the voices of Fukushima students nonchalantly reading Jelinek’s text. Meanwhile the “tourist” would take in the recreation of the image on the postcard, a scene selected from thousands of media photographs of the Fukushima events. The mass of imagery is thus cut through by the penetrating purity and rawness of the voices of children, the direct victims of a disaster we feel we all know, but actually have not experienced.
In 2011 Takayama also created a fictional “Referendum” on the issue of the current state of Japan: a mobile booth that toured the country, inviting audiences to visit, watch interviews with school students about their hopes (or not) for Japan at that time, and then to “vote” by answering the same questions themselves. Takayama has continued this project in 2012 as well, aiming to create a kind of time capsule of the post-disaster zeitgeist.
And what a way to end 2012 but with some more controversy? Yukio Ninagawa, the local industry giant who at nearly eighty seems to want to never stop directing at all, finished 2012 with a bang with his production of The Trojan Women, that is a co-production with Tel Aviv’s Cameri Theatre, and a mixed Japanese, Israeli and Israeli-Arab cast. Unfortunately, with the recent situation in Gaza, the timing for what Ninagawa no doubt sincerely hoped would be a project promoting practical cultural exchange has been overshadowed by those with far less worthy ambitions.