No one likes sweeping statements and generalisations, and I’m not about to fall into that trap. Nonetheless there is a real case to be made that the most exciting centre for contemporary theatre and the performing arts in Japan today is not what was once called the “east capital”, Tokyo, but that older capital lying to the west, Kyoto.
This is not just about how many artists and directors are based in Kyoto, though it is certainly home to a significant number of solo artists and companies, including contemporary Kabuki troupe Kinoshita-Kabuki, Takuya Murakawa, and Kunio Sugihara.
No, Kyoto’s claim to be the new hub for Japanese contemporary performing arts is threefold.
Firstly, we now have ROHM Theatre Kyoto. Opening January 10th as part of a major renovation and redevelopment of the 50-year-old Kyoto Kaikan, ROHM Theatre Kyoto will be a major cultural hall and hub for a range of arts and events, including opera, ballet, music, traditional stage arts, and contemporary dance and theatre. It is located in the Okazaki Park area, a mini cultural nerve centre with two large art museums.
It will also be the new home for Kyoto Experiment (KEX), which is our second reason. The festival didn’t happen last calendar year due to the construction then still ongoing at ROHM but instead happens twice in 2016: once in the spring (just sneaking into the 2015 fiscal year) and then in its usual early autumn slot. (Festival/Tokyo also adopted this strategy when it launched in autumn 2009, taking place ostensibly twice in the 2010 calendar year, though it was actually twice in the 2009 fiscal year. Oh, the chicanery of tax subsidies.)
KEX launched in 2010 and has slowly been accruing a reputation for programming small yet edgy performances from Japan and around the world. It continues to feature South American performance, for example, which is rarely seen in Japan, plus always includes a healthy proportion of dance — much needed as previous attempts to sustain a full dance-focussed festival in Japan have stumbled, and Festival/Tokyo almost entirely avoids programming it at all.
The third reason is Chiten, the theatre company best known for its radical revisions of Chekhov and Shakespeare. Chiten and its director, Motoi Miura, relocated to Kyoto in 2005 and later opened an innovative performance space, UNDER-THROW (pictured above), in July 2013. The atelier hosts full performances and previews of its productions under development. Chiten is also determined to foster a new audience of theatregoers in Kyoto, especially among young people, and so all tickets are sold at a set price of ¥2,000. In addition, if you buy one of the special “cultivate tickets” (also ¥2,000), it then adds to a stock of free tickets that are available for others. While pay-what-you-can nights and so on are common in other cities around the world, they are practically unheard of in Japan, so Chiten’s initiative (and KEX’s in 2014) are commendable efforts to address the issue of accessibility for younger audiences.
Kyoto Art Center is a lively hub for visual arts and performance in the centre of the city. Like 3331 Arts Chiyoda and Nishi-Sugamo Arts Factory in Tokyo, and the sadly now defunct Seika Theatre in downtown Osaka, KAC is located in a former school building. It programmes exhibitions and events, as well as serving as a venue for festivals like KEX and Parasophia (see below). And similarly to 3331, it also operates a residency programme for artists from around the world.
In addition, we have seen bigger, bolder art festivals and events emerging in Kyoto. Most prominently, the city hosted Parasophia last year in an attempt to rival the likes of Yokohama as a city that can host a major international art festival. There is also Kyotographie, an annual photography festival held over four weeks in the spring (starting April 23rd for this year’s iteration).
In many ways, none of this is new. There has always been a healthy theatre scene outside of Tokyo, including in the Kansai region where Kyoto, Osaka and Kobe are located. After all, I got my very first taste of Japanese theatre at a production of a Rio Kishida play at the tiny Seika Theatre in Namba almost ten years ago.
Notably, Japan’s first international theatre festival took place in 1982 at a tiny mountain village called Toga in Toyama Prefecture, far from the bamboozling metropolitan noise of Tokyo. In many ways it was the greatest achievement of the post-war angura movement. Shizuoka Performing Arts Center opened in 1997 at the height of Japan’s massive “culture box” construction boom, and was the first such production house for performing arts with a resident company. The original artistic director was Tadashi Suzuki, who also founded the Toga Festival.
In recent years Yokohama has also been making a case for itself to be taken seriously as a major cultural city, since it now counts ST Spot (opened in 1987, incorporated as a non-profit in 2004), Steep Slope Studio (opened in 2006) and the vast Kanagawa Arts Theatre (KAAT) (opened in 2011) among its facilities, plus the relocation of Tokyo Performing Arts Market — an international networking and showcase event for the performing arts — to Yokohama, a coup they got away with by adding “in Yokohama” to the name.
Full disclosure: I work or have worked for several of the events and organisations mentioned in this article.