The best kept secret in Japanese theatre is the wealth of absurdity lying beneath the surface of new writing.
Japan had its own fair of old school Absurdist theatre with the likes of Minoru Betsuyaku (still revived a lot today) but, whereas British drama at any rate seems to have moved far from the style of NF Simpson, Ionesco et al (and it was never a form that British writers adopted with ease anyway), the Japanese have no qualms about making use of motifs and plot devices that stray beyond the definitions of realism.
In this article I am going to make a cursory overview of some of the main players behind this trend.
Shu Matsui (Sample)
Shu Matsui’s work has a wicked streak of the Absurd, one which tends to come out in the comedy that is always wrestling with his clearly German-influenced structural techniques.
Tsuka (Passage) (2004) told of a sexually inadequate husband unable to satisfy his wife, and attempting to use a strap-on dildo instead. This same instrument is later used by his wife’s lover to rape him, egged on by his brother-in-law. Meanwhile, an unseen mother lurks upstairs, ringing a claxon to call her children like a deus ex machina. The whole thing takes place in a set filled with piles of rubbish, the wasteland of our daily lives.
In his recent That Man’s World (2009) there were the same layers of narration and commentary that made his award-winning Portrait of a Family (2008) such a dense and documentary-style dissection work — but this time he again unleashes his (often physical) comedy. A group of anarchists ‘perform’ as animals, only these roles extend to their sex lives. Further, a married couple mourn a family pet — or is it their daughter? Matsui’s world is one of blurred lines between reality and fantasy, where Brechtian analytical monologues give way to exuberant colour.
Shiro Maeda (Gotanndadan)
I first encountered Shiro Maeda’s work through his NHK teleplay Kaimono, a gentle comedy of an elderly couple’s trip to Tokyo to buy a camera. It remains the best drama I have seen on Japanese in five years. However, it led me to believe that Maeda’s work was pure realism, a kind of Ken Loach of Japanese theatre. How wrong I was…
Isn’t anyone alive? and its follow-up, the premiere Are we alive?, were an extraordinary, original pair of works closer to the Absurd than to any kitchen-sink. The former won the 52nd Kishida Drama Award and together they form a “Grotesque Comedy Series”. In them, a group of randomly connected characters near a city university campus start to die unexpectedly and suddenly. Though hints are given of a train accident and a calamity, this is not a play about disasters and catastrophe. It is a very funny black comedy about the failure of people to communicate what is necessary; though the amount of fatalities surmounts even the most tragic of Shakespeare tragedies, the scale is not mortality and death — but marriage, relationships and loneliness.
The “sequel” Are we alive? introduces us to the same narrative with a new group of characters, only it is played backwards this time, all the characters starting dead and coming back to life as such. Backwards structures work best for bittersweet irony (Pinter’s Betrayal, Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow), though Maeda ends his play on a note of hope, that we might just survive and get over this problem of life if we sit down and talk to each other with sincerity and clarity.
Other works in Maeda’s oeuvre have blended surrealism with wry observational comedy. Nagaku toiki (A Long Exhale) (2003) was about a man unable to stop urinating. Kyabetsu no tagui (A Type of Cabbage) (2005) is a fantasy about gods, memory and vegetables. In Idainaru seikatsu no boken (The Great Life Adventure) (2008) the ghost of a dead sister appears to a video game fanatic, or does it? And Sayonara Boku no Chiisana Meisei (Farewell, My Moment of Fame) (2006) concerns a playwright and a giant snake, in a self-referential comedy. Maeda combines fable-like analogy with wry comedy and brilliant duologues.
Kurou Tanino (Niwa Gekidan Penino)
Perhaps the strongest of all the examples I have dwelt on here, Kurou Tanino’s troupe is a one-man psychological trip into the underbelly of our desires.
His Ira ira suru otona no ehon was a remarkable portrait of two fairytale creatures (literally semi-beastial) and the school boy living under their house. Not least the staging itself — a whole mini-theatre stage inside a one-room apartment in central Tokyo — the real coup was when the boy (actually, a tall, quite brilliant adult actor) emerged, initially connected through his groin to the giant tree that had burst into the couple’s house. Having spent years drinking its magical sap (=his semen) they then come under his power after he joins them in the upper-world, in a hilarious parable of suppressed sexual desires.
Tanino’s new work will be staged in December as part of F/T09.
Tomohiro Maekawa (Ikiume)
Maekawa works as a freelance director a lot these days but when he produces his own plays under the Ikiume banner the scripts once again veer towards a familiarly surreal take on urban contemporary existence.
To take one example, Kansu Domino was the tale of the survivors of a miraculous traffic accident and the strange delusions that some of its characters lived under — delusions that would derail their relationships and plunge them into power struggles. Maekawa introduces into an ordinary world one or two elements of the bizarre as symbols of the charades we believe in.
However, it is interesting to consider this trend of the Absurd against the emphasis that a lot of Japanese observers have placed on a “super-reality” visible in the works of cheflitsch and Daisuke Miura (Potudo-ru). Indeed, the latter particularly has gone to great lengths to shock audiences with on-stage nudity and sex. Miura’s world is a bleak one of violence and constant physical need, that, if persued, leads to exploitation and failure. Toshiki Okada‘s chelfitsch produces work that is part dance, part physical theatre. The plays employ a dazzlingly revisionist treatment of Japanese language and dialogue, mixing movement with the rhythm of words, to emphasis the disconnection and alienation of the characters.