Tokyo Theatres in April

With me caught up in this and that, another month has passed without any new updates on this blog. I apologize to my readers. It just happens that I was on vacation :) I spent around two weeks away from the Japanese stage, only to realize how much I would miss it.

And that, in spite of the fact that on the night before my departure I went to see a fabulous dramatization of Terayama Shūji’s Den’en ni shisu 『田園に死す』“Pastoral: To Die in the Country” at Za Suzunari, which gave me enough food for thought over the holidays. Nonetheless, after two weeks the withdrawal symptoms were so acute, that right after landing at Narita, I went straight to KAAT in Yokohama to catch Chiten’s “Demons”. I’m glad to say that it was one of the best things I’ve ever done on the spur of the moment.

About Den’en ni shisu and Akuryō you will most surely read again on this blog soon. Let’s see what the month of April has in store for theatergoers:

  • Nylon 100℃ will perform Pan’ya Bunroku no shian – zoku『パン屋文六の思案~続・岸田國士一幕劇コレクション』at the Aoyama Round Theatre from April 10th through May 3rd. The performance is conceived as a collage of several one-act plays written by Kishida Kunio (1890-1954), who is often referred to as “the father” of modern Japanese theatre. This stage is the best occasion to catch up with the latest work of Keralino Sandorovich, the leader of Nylon 100℃ and one of the most notable Japanese artists of the moment. Both a theatre director and a musician, KERA is one of the very few people whose wit and insight manages to give entertainment theatre that twist which transforms every show into a lasting memory.

    Tessenkai Noh (April 11th, Hosho Noh Theatre)

    Tessenkai Noh (April 11th, Hosho Noh Theatre)

  • Among the Noh performances of this month the Tessenkai program on April 11th at the Hōshō nōgakudō might be a good choice. Shitekata Shibata Minoru will perform Oshio 『小塩』, a Noh based on a love story from “The Tales of Ise”, quite rarely seen on stage. After the kyōgen Uo sekkyō 『魚説教』, we will be able see Uzawa Hisa’s Kanawa 『鉄輪』– a Noh about a woman’s jealousy. Strong human emotions such as jealousy become motives in various Noh plays – Aoi no Ue 『葵上』“Lady Aoi” is the most famous example. But in Kanawa the rendering of such emotions gets a bit out of the ordinary, in that there is nothing of the hurt but dignified aura of Lady Rokujō (the main character in “Lady Aoi”). Kanawa shows us a simple woman, invoking magic to take revenge on the one who hurt her. Her wrath can only be tempered by the powerful onmyōji Abe no Seimei. One of the highlights is the mask Namanari 生成, used exclusively for this Noh play.

    Sugawara denju tenarai kagami (April 5-27, National Bunraku Theater)

    Sugawara denju tenarai kagami (April 5-27, National Bunraku Theater)

  • At the National Bunraku Theatre a performance of Sugawara Denju Tenarai Kagami 『菅原伝授手習鑑』 is scheduled for the interval April 5th – 27th. This classic of ningyō jōruri 人形浄瑠璃 puppet theatre, based on legends surrounding the personality of Heian period scholar Sugawara no Michizane (845-903), will be performed in its entirety (tōshi kyōgen), which means that we will have the chance to spend a whole day in the bunraku theatre, enraptured by the magic of the moving puppets.

The first day of April marks a new beginning for most of the people living in Japan. The fair weather and the cherry trees in bloom wouldn’t leave us any other choice than to look ahead with hope and expectations. While keeping an eye on the Japanese stage, don’t forget to enjoy your spring :)

Tokyo Theatres in March

For this month there are three stages that I would recommend heartily:

"Demons" by Chiten (March 10th-23rd, KAAT)

“Demons” by Chiten (March 10th-23rd, KAAT)

  • Dostoyevsky’s “Demons” – Akuryō悪霊』in Japanese – is being dramatized by theatre company Chiten 地点in collaboration with the Kanagawa Arts Theatre. It will be performed from March 10th through the 23rd. Responsible for the direction is Miura Motoi 三浦基, whose name guarantees the quality of the work. It is a performance fervently awaited by the Japanese theatre world.
  • At the Tokyo Metropolitan Theater we will be able see Shiftシフト』, a performance by theatre company Sample, from March 14th through the 23rd. Shift is actually one of the earlier creations of director Matsui Shū 松井周, performed in 2007 for the first time. Matsui’s theatre is known for showing human beings in critical situations, constrained to think and to act beyond the social establishment. Shift is a story about a community facing the dilemma of having to choose between preserving its old ways and embracing outsiders in order to ensure its own continuity. I guess it is needless to point out the subtle hints at some problems that Japanese society is facing nowadays. Let me just say that when talking about the frontlines of contemporary Japanese theatre, Sample is a unit which deserves all the attention.

    "The Merchant of Hinemi" (U-ench saisei jigyodan)

    “The Merchant of Hinemi” (U-ench saisei jigyodan)

  • U-ench saisei jigyōdan’s Hinemi no shōninヒネミの商人』“The Merchant of Hinemi”, written by playwright and director Miyazawa Akio 宮沢章夫, will be restaged for the first time in 21 years from March 20th through the 30th at Za-Kōenji 座・高円寺. This work is based loosely on “The Merchant of Venice” and “Hinemi”, the play that brought Miyazawa the Kishida Kunio Playwrights Award in 1993. Hinemi is the name of the fictional town where the action takes place. Amid their daily routine, the characters find something important enough to change their view on life – this is what the play promises to be about.

Spring is almost here, a reason good enough to get ready for a new start :)

TPAM 2014 report

The Performing Arts Meeting in Yokohama 2014 took place from February 8th through the 16th. It coincided with the time of the heaviest snowfall that the Tokyo area has seen in several years. This complicated things a bit both for the organizers and for audiences, but luckily there was no need to suspend any of the shows in the program. I managed to go to Yokohama only one time during TPAM and tried to make the best use out of the few hours spent there.

RE/PLAY (DANCE Edit.)

RE/PLAY (DANCE Edit.)

The first performance I saw was RE/PLAY (DANCE Edit.), directed by Tada Junnosuke in collaboration with choreographer Kitamari. Based on a previous work with the same title by Tokyo Deathlock, the dance version of RE/PLAY is an interrogation of the meaning of dance. A background song is repeated several times and the eight performers have to execute the same choreography each time the song is replayed. The opening and the ending songs were repeated three times each, but in between it was only The Beatles’ “Ob-la-di ob-la-da” (I’m sorry I wasn’t inspired enough to count the times that this tune was played, forcing the dancers to do the same set of movements over and over again, but it must have been around ten times.) The interesting part was that, though the choreography was indeed the same each time, there was actually a gradual increase in the speed of the movements. This hinted at the way that the human body reacts when forced to repeat the same action over and over again. Endless repetition is unnatural for the living body, which responds through exhaustion. To the spectators, who were seated comfortably while watching this process of usage of the human body, it was enough food for thought. There was actually a moment within the performance, when the dancers stopped and just stood and looked at the audience. Being stared at by the exhausted performers for about three minutes in silence was a chilling experience.

Each performer has elaborated their own movements, so there are no two alike. Although each one’s individuality has founds its own expression, the dancers relate by confirming each other’s position and timing in the performance space. The overall sight is of a world where each individual can be himself or herself while taking part in the larger story of the community. This spirit is in accord with the concept of Symposium, the previous Tokyo Deathlock work, and as far as we can guess it probably is the defining trait of the theatre that Tada Junnosuke creates.

After seeing RE/PLAY I hurried up to the Yokohama Creative City Center, where An Exhibition called “Play” was taking place. Three artists united their efforts for this project: photographer Hamada Hideaki, designer Takizawa Kai and theatre director Shiba Yukio (mamagoto). Their idea of a “Play” was to have the spectator perform – within the photography exhibition (with the motto: “photographs are gifts to the future”), the visitor is asked to take pictures himself with a set of cameras placed there in advance; one can wear the several clothes exhibited, imagining how it would be to live the life of their previous owner; in the third exhibition, the viewer takes part in a quiet exchange of questions and answers. This collaboration was based on an open, interactive concept, inviting us to reconsider the idea of “performance”.

I was so absorbed by the exhibition that I forgot to take pictures of it, although it was allowed to! When I realized it, I was already on my way to the next venue, so there was nothing to be done. Though it doesn’t have any connection to anything, I’ll just post this picture from that evening in Yokohama instead. As you can see, the amount of snow was not to be trifled with.

Yokohama in winter

Yokohama in winter

For the evening I chose the performance of mum & gypsy, “R and the weightless surges”. Although I mentioned this company several times on this blog, it was the first time I saw them on stage. “R and the weightless surges” is a story about the members of a boxing club. One of them commits suicide and it is suggested that he had been badly treated by the others. A very physical performance, with a high pace and a rhythmical choreography is used to describe the man’s loneliness and the ever growing darkness of the inner crisis that eventually annihilates his existence.

The already established trademark of mum & gypsy’s performance style is “refrain” – the repetition of movements and phrases. Upon receiving the Kishida Kunio Theatre Award in 2013, director Fujita Takahiro was criticized for his use of repetition within the script. However, as far as the performance is concerned, the “refrain” proves to be most effective in expressing a critical situation rising to a climax. The words and the movements might be same, but the degree of tension behind them and the way the repetition is executed differs each time, so in the end it is no repetition at all, but rather a spiral effect revolving with an increasing speed. It is within this spiral that human bodies and emotions are put under pressure, being constrained to change shape, whether they want it or not. The performance style of mum & gypsy is most impressive and I invite you to see it with your own eyes, by watching this fragment of a previous performance, K to mayonaka no hotori de “With K by midnight”:

 

I hope these few impressions about TPAM 2014 gave you an idea of how vibrant this performing arts festival is. I am already looking forward to the next edition.

Noh as a method – “The Maids” by Ren’niku kōbō

I first heard of this work about three years ago when it was touring Europe. Our professor of Japanese theatre theory presented it as an example of a stage where the “roles” are flowing from one performer’s body to another, with one role not being confined to one body. I confess I was at a loss to imagine such a performance at that time and a great question mark would have probably still remained in my mind I hadn’t had the chance last year to actually see the work.

Renniku kōbō’s signature style is defined by the use of Noh acting methods in creating contemporary theatre. While the great majority of their works is based on original scripts by founder and director Okamoto  Akira  岡本章, they also approach other plays, such as it was the case of Oedipus, performed last year in March.

The process of staging Jean Genet’s “The Maids” has undergone several phases before the variant I was able to see last year in August at Za-Kōenji. The three characters in the play – the lady and the two maids – have been previously performed by a mixed male and female cast, but this time the cast consisted of five actresses. Nevertheless, the concept of having several performers share one role has remained unchanged.

At the core of Genet’s “The Maids” – Jochūtachi『女中たち』in Japanese – stand the emotional conflicts between master and servant, the mixture of adoration and hate towards the master – psychological realities that are depicted with no intention of beautification. However, this play is more than about the hierarchical relationships of Western society that were on the brink of collapsing during the first half of the past century. It depicts the very subtle and painful interdependence between master and servant, between the adored and the adoring. The lady knows the two maids hate her and she keeps stimulating their hate, as if feeding on it. Genet’s style tends to be real to the grotesque, for there is a culmination of repressed hate just waiting to get manifest, reaching for a most dramatic climax.

Ren'niku kobo "The Maids" (Za-Koenji, August 27-28, 2013)

Ren’niku kobo “The Maids” (Za-Koenji, August 27-28, 2013)

The three roles are played by five actresses – Yokota Keiko, Maki Michiko, Yoshimura Chihiro, Tomosada Kyōko and Muramoto Hiroko. At first they take on the roles in turns, but as the tension gets higher, the speed of each role being handed over from one performer to the other increases. This results in a stiff exchange of lines that reminds of an automat. Behind it stands the concept of “a play within a play”, for the actresses are mimicking the maids who are mimicking the lady. Indeed, there is no attempt of “identifying” with the role. The distance between the actresses and their roles is obvious all throughout the performance. In director Okamoto Akira’s words the intention was to question the “role” and to dismantle the individual identity behind a role in search for the multiple selves that lie in the depth of the actor’s psyche. It was an attempt to revive the part of the “chorus” of ancient Greek tragedy, the collective voice that is supposed at times to take part in the action and at other times to take a critical stance towards the developments on stage.

This kind of conceptual theatre depends heavily on the imagination of the spectators or, to be more precise, it would not be possible at all without the participation of the audience. Taking to account that one role can be played in turns by all the actresses on stage, the spectators have to notice every change in voice inflexion or bodily movement, so that they can keep hold of which character is talking at a certain moment. Furthermore, apart from the red dress confined to its chair in the background, there are no other props used. Any other objects are suggested by gestures or only mentioned in the dialog. This is another point where the imagination of the spectators is called to fill in the gaps. In this sense, we are dealing with a very concentrated form of theatre, one that instead of dispersing the tension towards the outside – by making the characters’ conflict visible through suggestive objects and aggressive behaviors, it actually keeps the tension oriented towards the inside until the very last moment. The whole tension of the play, although latent, gradually rises to such a degree that it can only end up in murder. The killing of the mistress by the two maids was suggested on stage by an act of strangulation. However, in that single moment it was obvious for the spectators in which body resided the role of the mistress, such as it was obvious that the role of each of the maids was shared by two bodies. It seemed as if the hate felt by each of the maids towards their mistress had needed more than one body to be expressed accurately.

One of the most interesting aspects of this work is its relationship to Noh. What is the key element that connects Genet’s world of maddening passions to the world of Noh? If we look at the most popular types of characters whose stories are at the center o Noh plays, we find either restless souls of the dead (in case of mugen nō  夢幻能 “dream noh”) or monogurui - “desperate” or “mad” people (in case of genzai nō  現在能 “present day noh”). In both cases we deal with characters whose selves are alienated – they do not belong to themselves anymore, so to speak. This fact is expressed effectively through the chant of jiutai 地謡 – the chorus in Noh, consisting of eight performers who sing the lines on behalf of the main character at certain moments. There is an obvious attempt of director Okamoto Akira to establish a fruitful exchange between the role of the chorus in Greek tragedy and the one of the jiutai in Noh.

As far as the expression itself is concerned, the deep, powerful voices and the strict control of bodily movements are also connected to Noh acting techniques. The stiff, tension-filled choreography mentioned earlier reminds one of kata 型 – the fixed sequences of gestures and movements, which form the base of Noh acting. Keeping the tension of the conflict oriented towards the inside results in the restrained expression so often associated with Noh.

With this work Ren’niku kōbō managed to present a very subtle form of theatre, involving the audience in a psychological play that kept them alert until the last moment. When the red dress spread on the chair in the background was replaced by a white one in the end, a feeling of relief spread through the audience. There is no redemption through murder, but a great load of hate had been certainly done away with. It is through meticulous concept, informed by explorations in the essence of theatre, that Ren’niku kōbō keeps pushing further the limits of dramatic expression.

The company’s upcoming project is the staging of a Noh play written by contemporary poet Naka Tarō 那珂太郎, entitled  Shikōtei  始皇帝 “Qin Shi Huang”. This stage will be a collaboration with nōgakushi Kanze Tetsunojō 観世銕之丞, himself a performer very open to expanding the possibilities of the art of Noh through experimental theatre. The performance will be hosted by the National Noh Theatre on March 20th.

Tokyo Theatres in February

As I mentioned in the previous entry, the main event in the performing arts world this month is TPAM – The Performing Arts Meeting in Yokohama, going on from the 8th through the 16th.

The TPAM Showcase consists of about 24 stages for audiences to choose from, presented by artists working in the front lines of contemporary Japanese theatre. Here are some performances which I personally look forward to:

  • Hanako nitsuite “About Hanako”, which is the 7th work in the series of Contemporary Noh Plays produced by Nomura Mansai. It comprises a Butō version of the Noh Aoi no Ue 『葵上』, a contemporary theatre version of the Kyōgen Hanako and a new take on Mishima Yukio’s modern Noh play Hanjo – all under the direction of Kuramochi Yutaka. (Theatre Tram, 5th -16th February)
  • RE/PLAY (DANCE edit). The highly acclaimed work by Tokyo Deathlock director Tada Junnosuke will be recreated in a dance version, in collaboration with choreographer Kitamari. (Steep Slope Studio, 14-16 February)

    TPAM 2014 - Performing Arts Meeting in Yokohama (8-16 February)

    TPAM 2014 – Performing Arts Meeting in Yokohama (8-16 February)

  • “Happy Days” by theatre company ARICA. Beckett’s play will receive a fresh approach through the stunning stage art by Kaneuji Teppei and the performance of former Tenkei gekijō actress Andō Tomoko, which are the promise of a work definitely worth seeing. (Yokohama Red Brick Warehouse No.1, 3F Hall, 14-16 February)
  • “Noise and Darkness” 『騒音と闇』by Miss Revolutionary Idol Berserker 革命アイドル暴走ちゃん. This new work wearing the signature of Nikaidō Toko, the mastermind behind the controversial Banana Gakuen, will give us the opportunity to experience at a very physical level how close is absurdity to our everyday lives. (Sotetsu Honda Theater, 14-16 February)

The festival features also an International Showcase with stages by performers from France, China, South Korea and Finland.

The weight given to choreography and bodily presence on stage and the tendency to rely less and less on the word of a script is not only the common feature of all these works, but the most recent trend in Japanese performing arts. TPAM is a great opportunity to witness all this in real time, so don’t miss it if you’re in the area.

Tokyo theatres in January

The Japanese word for hibernation is tōmin 冬眠 :) Apart from some notable noh and kabuki performances this month, there are very few stages I can recommend. I guess everybody is recovering after the very intense last months of the past year or preparing for TPAM – The Performing Arts Meeting in Yokohama (February 8th – 16th), which is the most awaited event of the first half of this year.

After contemplating the idea of introducing some commercial theatre shōgyō engeki 商業演劇 for a change or maybe some popular drama taishū engeki 大衆演劇, which really never rest, I soon concluded it might be too tricky, so I’ll be staying on safe ground with the few titles I’m sure I can trust.

"Okina" (Tessenkai, January 13th 2014)

“Okina” (Tessenkai, January 13th 2014)

The first performance of every year in the world of Noh is “Okina”『翁』, a very special and very old play which is considered to be at the roots of Noh. Closer to sacred ritual than theatre, it is a performance where the actor in the leading role wears the mask of a god on stage – a mask called hakushikijō 白式尉 used exclusively for this play – and performs a dance, which is a prayer for a peaceful and prosperous year.  For more information on “Okina” and stage photos, please visit this page on Noh.com. “Okina” is featuring in the program of the National Noh Theatre on January 7th, however only as chant (suutai 素謡) performed by shitekata Komparu Yasuaki. It will be followed by kyōgen Neongyoku 『寝音曲』and the noh Taema『当麻』. I would actually recommend the Tessenkai program on January 13th, which features the whole performance of “Okina”, but it seems all tickets have been already sold out.

Noh "Koi no omoni" (Yokohama nogakudo, January 25th)

Noh “Koi no omoni” (Yokohama nogakudo, January 25th)

Another very interesting Noh performance will be held on January 25th at the Yokohama nōgakudō, where Kanze Tetsunojō will be performing Koi no omoni 『恋重荷』. It is the story of an old gardener who falls in love with a court lady of high rank. In order to cure him of his passion, she challenges him to lift up a heavy rock, but the task proves to be too much for the old man. He dies and appears again as a vengeful spirit, tormenting the court lady by placing an invisible weight on her shoulders. As she repents, he changes his heart and becomes her guardian spirit. As you can probably guess, it is a Noh play with many subtleties, although the plot seems very simple at first sight.

Meanwhile the world of Kabuki will be celebrating the revival of a work which will be performed in its entirety for the first time in 150 years – Sanzen ryō haru no komahiki 『三千両初春駒曳』(information available in English here). The story brings together Edo period anecdotes about to a plot to kill a shōgun, however transposed in late Azuchi-Momoyama period, when the successors of Oda Nobunaga were fighting over power. The arrival of a beautiful Korean princess brings a charming twist to the story. This work is known to Kabuki lovers for two particular scenes, which are usually played separately. However this time the entire original script has been revised and arranged, as to make possible the staging of the whole play – a kind of kabuki performance known as tōshi kyōgen 通し狂言. Behind this very ambitious undertaking stands Kabuki actor Onoe Kikugurō VII, who will play the lead role. Onoe Shōroku IV, Onoe Kikunosuke V and Nakamura Tokizō V will also be starring. Sanzen ryō haru no komahiki is being performed in the great hall of the National Theatre 国立劇場 from January 3rd through the 27th.

"Tokaido Yotsuya Kwaidan" (Haiyu-za, January 16th-26th)

“Tokaido Yotsuya Kwaidan” (Haiyu-za, January 16th-26th)

Turning our eyes towards contemporary theatre we find… Tōkaidō Yotsuya Kwaidan 『東海道四谷怪談』on the stage of Haiyū-za!! As intriguing as it may sound, Tsuruya Nanboku’s kabuki play was adapted to the modern stage and performed for the first time in this version fifty years ago. We’ll get the chance to see this adaptation again, this time under the direction of Yasukawa Shūichi, in a series of events commemorating 70 years since the inauguration of Haiyū-za 俳優座, one of the places that serves as reference point in the history of modern Japanese theatre. Those of you who didn’t have enough of Oiwa’s story after this year’s Festival/Tokyo could check out the Haiyū-za version of it.

By the way, there is another modern adaptation of a kabuki play by Tsuruya Nanboku – Sakurahime 『桜姫』, performed by Hmp Theatre Company エイチエムピー・シアターカンパニー at AI-HALL in Itami (Hyōgo) from January 31st through February 2nd. This work seems to be the first in a series entitled “The roots of Contemporary Japanese Theatre”, initiated by the company. The concept of this stage sounds very interesting and I wouldn’t miss if I were close by.

I’ll stop here before I bump into more modern stage versions of kabuki or noh plays. Not that anyone would mind, but it starts feeling somewhat… haunting.

Don’t you think? :D

New Year’s Resolutions

明けましておめでとうございます。Happy New Year, everyone!

Stepping into the year 2014, I cannot help but feel that it’s the best time for a new start, with new aims and plans. To be honest, what I like most about this time of the year is the holidays! Even one single day spent away from classes or work feels enough to put our thoughts in order.

My new year’s resolutions regarding this blog were clearly set even before the end of 2013, but I’ll post them here anyway. As you might imagine, nothing is more motivating than sharing one’s thoughts, so here I go:

  1. To update more often. (I bet you saw this coming, didn’t you? :) )
  2. To find a better balance between quality and quantity when it comes to information on theatre events.
  3. To keep a closer eye on the work of young theatre artists.

I guess a short explanation would be appropriate here. There are artists whose work was known to me before I came to Japan. To see performances by Seinendan, Chelfitsch, Ninagawa Yukio, Kara Jūrō, Suzuki Tadashi, Noda Hideki, Matsuda Masataka and many others who were mentioned in the theatre theory classes I used to attend was on top of my priority list. I was able to start writing about theatre by using these artists’ work as a reference, because it is obviously easier to write when you have some prior knowledge. However, after spending some time here I realized at some point that what’s happening outside the mainstream in Japanese theatre might be as interesting and important as the work of established names. In most cases it’s about companies with a performing history of less than three years, unknown outside Japan, who are nonetheless doing ground-breaking work. Even local critics are struggling to find a “language”, i.e. proper concepts to use when discussing these young people’s creations. I hope to be able to introduce the work of theatre companies like mum & gypsy マームとジプシー, lolo  ロロ, Okazaki geijutsu-za 岡崎芸術座、hi-bye ハイバイ, mamagoto  ままごと, Arata Mino  三野新, Siberia shōjo tetsudō  シベリア少女鉄道, Wasshoi house わっしょいハウス and others.

4.  To expand the geographical range of the column on upcoming events. (This is a tough one :) )

One of the latest and most positive trends in contemporary Japanese theatre is decentralization – the work of artists who are active outside of Tokyo is attracting much attention towards the theatre scene of other places than the capital. At the same time, performing arts festivals like KYOTO EXPERIMENT, Toga Festival (Toyama) and Edamitsu Theatre Festival (Fukuoka) have reached a scale and a quality that can no longer be ignored by discourses on Japanese theatre. To travel outside the metropolitan area, see theatre and report from the spot is one of my objectives for this year.

5.  To manage doing all the above without neglecting my main research project! Or else I’ll be in big trouble… Well, reporting regularly on this blog on how research is going might also be a good idea. Would anyone like to read about Zeami’s view on incorporating the literary tradition of the Heian period into Noh theatre? :)

I’ll stop here, while the list is still within reasonable limits. Of course, I’ll be open to any new ideas that particular circumstances might bring in. Let me just say that I’m very excited to see what this year brings.