Hideki Noda’s “Egg” in Paris… and the problem with public subsidy for theatre in Japan

The Japan Times published a review of Hideki Noda’s Egg on its recent performances in Paris.

Starring film actors Eri Fukatsu and Satoshi Tsumabuki, the sports spectacle satire played Théâtre National de Chaillot from March 3rd to March 8th.

We constantly bump against the pop power of Ichie Ichigo, a shrill singer with a love life as confusing as the masses of people crossing the stage. The music by Ringo Sheena captured the cool of the best Japanese pop, and the staging was wonderful — the movement, use of props and song-and-dance routines all had great energy and drew the audience in.

That recipe should work. Instead, the audience was reserved and most seemed to leave the theater shell-shocked — perhaps less by the intense subject matter than the play’s length and sensory overload. With themes and references as diverse as war crimes and angura (Japanese for the cultural “underground”), and so much scattered in between, it is hardly surprising.

In the end, it was perhaps just all too much and too unfocused, so the moment of cracking the egg and seeing what’s inside was scrambled — especially for anyone with little or no knowledge of the historical intricacies.

The conservative Yomiuri Shimbun’s English edition rather said Egg had been “warmly received” in Paris, employing some cherry-picked quotes from local reviews, though it does have one telling response from a bemused audience member: “I didn’t understand very well what was happening.”

hideki noda egg paris

Egg has already had two sold-out runs at Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre (in February 2015 and autumn 2012), under the auspices of the Tokyo Metropolitan Foundation for History and Culture (which is responsible for the Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre). It has also toured to Osaka and (later this month) Kitakyushu.

The Agency for Cultural Affairs Government of Japan and the Tokyo Culture Creation Project (now under the umbrella of Arts Council Tokyo) have previously sponsored tours of Noda’s plays The Bee and The Diver. Both of these earlier works had lukewarm receptions in London, yet still travelled to Tokyo and then elsewhere as revivals.

The more recent Miwa in 2013 had another starry cast, flashy promotions, and expensive ticket tariffs. This again was premiered at the Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre for a 52-performance run before a tour, though was only “co-presented” by the theatre, so the division of the budget is not clear.

Last year the Japan Foundation gave its first funding in its projected “East Asian Collaboration” scheme to an adaptation of the manga “Half Gods” by Moto Hagio, written and directed by Hideki Noda, and staged jointly at Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre and Myeongdong Theater (Seoul).

This all points towards a very strange attitude regarding public subsidy for the theatre in Japan. More and more it seems to be cynically awarded to populist productions and big names. Don’t get me wrong, I love Ringo Sheena. But does the stadium-filler really need tax-payers to foot her fee to write the music for Egg?

Whatever its merits as satire, Egg, given its glitzy cast and poppy material, could have easily found a home in the commercial sector, particularly a more sophisticated venue like Bunkamura in Shibuya. In fact, this was a frequent home to Noda’s new plays (with celebrity actors, natch) before he became Artistic Director of the Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre (then still called Metropolitan Art Space) in 2009, an appointment which was marketed with nauseatingly sycophancy (huge Soviet-esque posters hung from the ceilings or lined the walls featuring solo portraits of the man). His work, though literary and full of political nuance, is commercially minded, not so much in how it is written as how it is produced. His role as “Artistic Director”, then, is suspect; being not privy to the bureaucracy of the Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre, one can only idly speculate, though we can presume Noda does not programme all the diverse things that fill the venue’s calendar. After all, sometimes the theatre is merely a home to tenants on a world tour. His artistic directorship was essentially a way to bring him in as resident playwright, securing strong audiences for the theatre through his new plays.

hideki noda poster

When Hideki Noda was appointed Artistic Director of Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre in 2009, this poster was plastered sometimes multiple times along the same wall.

And yet, the tickets are still priced the same as the commercial sector — sometimes nearly ¥10,000 to see one of Noda’s starry premieres. Casting famous actors and choosing mainstream plays for a public theatre is certainly one way to bring in new audiences and good houses (and advocates may argue it pays for the Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre’s “Geigeki Eyes” showcase series for emerging artists), but surely subsidy should also be used to lower ticket prices?

When Trevor Nunn employed a similar policy during his tenure at the Royal National Theatre, London, the critics were up in arms. And yet what has been happening at the Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre is merely one part of a growing trend over the past few years in the public theatre in Japan.

When Kanagawa Arts Theatre opened in Yokohama, it picked a musical director, Amon Miyamoto, to be its first “Artistic Director” — like Noda, this then became a key part of the advertising for the new space — and proceeded to stage musicals alongside more esoteric offerings. The New National Theatre, Tokyo has another musical director currently running its theatre programming, Keiko Miyata. To be fair, the programming has not been very commercial, though it has also been criticised for failing to develop Japanese new writing. Instead, the theatre has focussed more on staging foreign plays in translation.

The Tokyo Culture Creation Project also sponsors one of the annual exhibitions at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo (a public art museum). For the 2014 fiscal year entry in this earnestly titled “Art Meeting” series the curators gave us “Seeking New Genealogies-Bodies / Leaps / Traces”, ostensibly about physical arts like theatre, dance and performance art. With much fanfare, Mansai Nomura was announced as the “general advisor”, once again playing on the name of someone renowned in Kyogen world and also with some “brand” value for ordinary consumers (Nomura is a frequent face in corporate advertising). But for all the hype, the show was amateurishly curated and Nomura’s true contribution opaque. The Kyogen sections of the exhibition were particularly shabby, despite the organisers’ expounding that Nomura’s “body” was the “central focus” of the show. Huh? Coincidentally, Nomura was also appointed as Artistic Director of the Setagaya Public Theatre in 2002 (after Makoto Sato), though again we can safely assume this does not entail the same duties as a European artistic directorship.

All this is not meant as a criticism of the work of Hideki Noda per se. Far from it, he is a fine dramatist and director. But something seriously needs to change with public subsidy for new writing in Japan. Out with the big names and commercial productions, and in with true investment for literary development. But if it’s too scary to risk empty houses for challenging work, at least give ordinary people a discount on tickets for the lighter fare. After all, they already paid for the productions to happen in the first place.

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