The final curtain will fall at the Parco Theatre on August 7th, bringing to a close a 43-year history. Opened in 1973 as the Seibu Theater, the venue is located inside the Shibuya Parco department store, which will also close temporarily to be demolished and rebuilt. Details have not been fully announced, but there are also plans to reopen the theatre (likely under a new name) inside the new Shibuya Parco set to open in autumn 2019.
To commemorate the closure, Parco has programmed a star-studded final season since January featuring some of the top names in commercial theatre in Japan.
Parco Theatre occupies a very specific place in the history of post-war Japanese theatre, in much the same way that the late Seiji Tsutsumi’s Saison Group (previously known as Seibu Saison Group) also played an important role in the overall growing 1970s and 1980s middle-class consumer culture that laid the groundwork for a lot that is taken for granted about retail, fashion and pop culture in Japan today. As Shunya Yoshimi, Thomas R H Havens, Steven C Ridgley and others have discussed, Shibuya Parco was an anchor for Japan’s rising post-war consumer culture and facilitated the shift of Tokyo’s zeitgeist from Shinjuku to Shibuya. Parco helped foment what is called “Saison Culture”, led by the Saison Group’s chic ventures in Shibuya that sparked market trends among younger consumers, including Parco, Loft, Wave, Libro, Muji and other specialty boutiques. The corporation’s empire grew out of supermarket chain Seiyu and the Seibu department stores, but now also includes convenience stores, the radio station J-Wave and a credit card company.
In 1987, Seiji Tsutsumi, also a poet and writer, founded the Saison Foundation with his own funds; today it is among the premier provider of grants for performing arts in Japan. As the corporation once said in 1985: “The Seibu Saison Group aims not only to generate profit, but to balance material and mental well-being through a lively engagement in art and cultural activities.” The group once also owned the Saison Theatre in Ginza and the Sezon Museum of Art, both of which are now closed.
Saison inspired imitators in these cultural enterprises. The rival Tokyu Group opened Bunkamura in 1989, an even more ambitious attempt to fuse culture with commerce in the heart of the city. Likewise, Spiral opened in 1985 in Aoyama, funded by an apparel manufacturer and with a leader from the angura theatre movement as its first director.
Though a medium-sized, private (i.e., commercial) theatre venue with 458 seats, the Parco Theatre (as it was renamed in 1985) was also a formidable early patron to the angura movement, particularly Shūji Terayama and his Shibuya-based troupe, Tenjō Sajiki, at a time when these figures had no support from the mainstream society or the theatre establishment per se (if we even presume such an “establishment” existed then, since public theatre did not start in Japan essentially until the openings of SPAC, Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre, Setagaya Public Theatre and the New National Theatre, Tokyo in the 1990s). In this sense, Parco represents the curious relationship that the counterculture enjoyed with the burgeoning commercial culture: they both fed off each other. It is an archetype of what was then happening generally in the cityscape, as a generation of “counter-consumers” emerged during the 1970s and on, lapping up the bohemian-flavoured goods produced by sophisticated artists and designers.
While Parco has arguably lost its edgy character in the last few years, becoming known largely for staging safe comedies by the likes of Kōki Mitani that people pay to go see their favourite celebrities, it has still tapped its Terayama connections with a strong series of revivals. In fact, one of the productions in its final season is a revival of La Marie Vison (1967) starring Akihiro Miwa (Terayama wrote the play originally for Miwa and it was previously revived at Parco, again with Miwa in the title role, in 1983 shortly after Terayama’s death). On another note, Parco has also made a valuable contribution by producing much of Peter Brook’s work that has visited Japan.
Parco will continue as a producing house, staging work in other venues, including public theatres. Recently examples include a production of Bent at Setagaya Public Theatre in July and even the revival of La Marie Vison will first play the New National Theatre, Tokyo before transferring to Parco, and then playing again at KAAT in Yokohama.
The Tokyo fringe and commercial theatre circuit is always oversubscribed with productions waiting to come in. However, the industry is facing a crisis due to a chronic shortage of venues, especially halls suitable for concerts, ballet and musicals. While certain significant venues like Asahi Art Square have also closed completely, the roots of the current situation — now known as “the 2016 problem” — lies in many coinciding theatre refurbishments as large venues scramble to be ready for 2020 and an anticipated boom in activities around the Olympics. Another notable permanent closure was Aoyama Theater in January. The loss of Parco during this time is thus particularly unfortunate and symbolic for the industry.