The art of hayagawari as seen in “Seven roles of Osome”

Among the traditional performing arts, kabuki is unarguably the most sensitive to the preferences of the audience and always ready to entertain its spectators with glamorous scenes and amazing stunts. “Seven roles of Osome” (Osome no nanayaku  お染の七役) is just the kind of play that reflects these characteristics of the art of kabuki. This article is about the Zenshin-za performance of this play I saw last year in May at the National Theater.

"Seven roles of Osome"  (performed by Zenshin-za), May 10th-21st, National Theater

“Seven roles of Osome” (Zenshin-za), May 10th-21st 2014, National Theater

Zenshin-za 前進座 is a theatre company active since 1931, famous for dealing with all kinds of artistic genres, from kabuki and modern theatre to film creation. “Seven roles of Osome” happens to be a very special piece in this company’s repertory. The story of two star-crossed lovers from Ōsaka first became a puppet theatre play and then began to be performed on the kabuki stage. The late Edo period (1603-1868) kabuki playwright Tsuruya Nanboku changed the location of the story from Ōsaka to Edo and thus adapted the play in order for it to succeed on the stages of Edo. Osome Hisamatsu ukina no no yomiuri, under its original title, become so famous that it was to be remembered by the more familiar title of Osome no nanayaku. It enraptured audiences both throughout Kansai and Kantō regions due to its highlight of hayagawari 早替わり – the lead actor perform seven roles at a time, using the trick of quick costume change.

However, the play stopped being performed in Tōkyō at the beginning of Meiji period (1868-1912). It was not until 1934, when it was revived by Zenshin-za, that “Seven roles of Osome” would be staged again. One of the initiators of Zenshin-za and a key-person in the Japanese theatre world of the 20th century, Atsumi Seitarō, had revised Tsuruya Nanboku’s original script by simplifying the contents. In addition, he was inspired in choosing the talented onnagata actor Kawarasaki Kunitarō V for the main role. The new “Seven roles of Osome” was a great success, and it soon began to be performed also on the mainstream kabuki stage by famous actors such as Bandō Tamasaburō and Nakamura Fukusuke.

The story itself is about Osome, the daughter of an oil dealer, and her lover Hisamatsu, the apprentice of her father. As they are not allowed to marry each other, the two agree to commit suicide together. Hisamatsu is actually a samurai by birth and if he could find the lost treasure of his house – a sword – he could restore the honor of his family. Starting from this plot, the story develops intricately throughout three acts and eight scenes, during which the lead actor plays a total of seven roles: Osome, Hisamatsu, Hisamatsu’s former lover Omitsu, Osome’s stepmother – Teishō, Hisamatsu’s younger sister – Takegawa, the geisha Koito, and Takegawa’s former servant – Oroku.

Right from the first scene, among the many people passing by the entrance to a temple, the audience (which is made up mostly of kabuki die-hard fans and connaisseurs) are able to recognize Osome, Hisamatsu, Takegawa and Koito appearing alternatively in the crowd. The second scene occurs indoors, but, in the same way, the actor playing Osome disappears through one side of the stage, only to appear again after no more than three seconds from the other side as Koito or Takegawa. The audience reacts each time with excitement, applauding the stunt. The most amazing act of quick costume change is certainly the last scene, where Osome and Hisamatsu meet on the Sumidagawa riverside with the intent of dying together. The two lovers meeting again after a long while – how does the actor manage to play the two roles – the man and the woman – at the same time? As you can imagine, the costume change occurs right in front of the audience. In the blink of an eye, with the help of an umbrella, the actor changes his appearance several times, convincing the spectators that both Osome and Hisamatsu are there present.

The lead actor in this Zenshin-za performance was Kawarasaki Kunitarō VI – “Yamazakiya”, as he is called by his fans. More than to show off the old stunt of quick costume change, he aimed at creating a distinct personality to each and one of the seven characters he played. This was especially visible in his interpretation of Oroku, who is the counter-image of Osome. While Osome is the gentle type of young woman, Oroku is rough and wicked, therefore the actor’s art had to cover the extremes of idealized beauty and realistic acting.

The emotional identification with the role one has to play and the actor’s effort “to become the character” have worked a long time as key tools in Western theatrical practices. As shown by plays like “Seven roles of Osome”, kabuki acting functions on quite different principles. In opposition to “heavy roles” which demand full emotional involvement of the actor, the structure of kabuki characters is lighter and more flexible, so that the actor is able to swiftly change roles. There is no way for “tragedy” to emerge as long as there is no aim for something like identification with the role. In other words, rather than the depth of emotion, kabuki’s charm lies in its lightness and its willingness to impress and entertain by all means.

The spectators who develop a taste for kabuki’s lightness remain devoted admirers of this stage art. They enjoy coming to see the same play with a different cast, closely observing each lead actor’s approach of the main role. The uniqueness of each actor’s art stands out especially through plays like “Seven roles of Osome”. To notice the differences between the actors and to be able to appreciate each one’s acting for itself is one of the things that kabuki fans find most delight in.

(*This is a slightly adapted version of the original article that can be read on my performing arts review column in Bungaku kingyo)


Best theatre performances of 2014

Before plunging into what 2015 has to offer theatrewise, I would like to take a moment and look back at the stages of last year. There were about 55 performances I saw, which is a very small number, considering how many theatrical productions are on every week and that even the most selective of critics sees at least 100 stages per year. The only thing I’m satisfied with, statistically speaking, is that this time I managed to cover all of the genres of Japanese theatre, from traditional arts to the contemporary ones.

Qualitatively speaking, one of the themes of thought during last year was that of the theatre exchanges between Japan and Europe or Asia. The experience I gained by working as a translator and interpreter for a Japanese production (“Godot has come“, produced by Natori Office) during its tour in Eastern Europe made me realize first hand that theatre exchanges do not rely only on language communication. Translating theatre practices, paying heed to the expectations of local audiences and creating a common base of background knowledge is just as important for a performance to be well received in an environment that is different of that in which it emerged. This is one of the themes I would like explore deeper from this year on.

Coming back to more concrete terms, let me mention here the three most impressive stage productions that I saw last year.

  • KAAT × Chiten, Akuryo (“The Possessed”) (KAAT, March 10th – 23rd)

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

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

Director Miura Motoi reinterpreted Dostoyevski’s “The Possessed” in a way that reverberated powerfully with the actuality of Japanese society, where conflicting political discourses have led to a state of confusion. Just as in the novel, the characters in Miura’s version of “The Possessed” are embodiments of concepts and ideals, sometimes clashing, other times working together while shaping the state of society at a certain moment in history. Although they always share the same stage, these “elements” are at times active, at other times they enter a latent state, and Miura’s method of showing their going in and out of activity was very inspired: while their role character is “active”, the actors are running around the center of the stage – in the same direction or in opposite direction. (G, “the Narrator” – interpreted brilliantly by Abe Satoko – is the only character who is running incessantly from the beginning through the end of the play.) This results in continuous “movement”, with a dazing effect upon the audience and involving it psychologically. Most impressive of all is the process by which the audience learns to read through that movement and understands that the story unfolding on stage is not unrelated to themselves.

 Chiten also participated in KYOTO EXPERIMENT 2014 with a restaging of Jelinek’s “Kein Licht“, and had several other performances at their recently opened atelier Under-throw in Kyoto.

What is at first sight the story of a girl growing into adulthood is in fact a moving picture of the community surrounding the main character, a community that undergoes changes just like an individual. The youthfulness of lolo‘s members makes up for a very energetic and charming performance. But what impressed me most about this work was the daringness of its approach toward fundamental themes such as life and death (rebirth, to be more accurate), individual and community, present and past. The last scene, where the death of the main character overlaps with her birth, leaves the audience at a loss whether to mourn or to rejoice. The performance has enough strength as to create this moment of emotional confusion within the spectator. With this said, I am sure looking forward to seeing more works by lolo.

  • Mikuni Yanaihara Project, Sakura no sono (“The Cherry Orchard”) (Festival/Tokyo 2014, Nishi-Sugamo Arts Factory, November 13th-17th)

    Mikuni Yanaihara Project, "The Cherry Orchard"

    Mikuni Yanaihara Project, “The Cherry Orchard”

Under Nibroll’s leader Mikuni Yanaihara’s direction,”The Cherry Orchard” is transposed into our times, reflecting the dramatic shifts in society that we are witnessing without being thoroughly able to oppose. The fight over cutting down the orchard from Chekhov’s classic is reinterpreted as an environmental problem – with allusions both to the effects of the nuclear accident in Fukushima and to the public movements against the military bases in Okinawa. In fact, questioning the necessity of an active military force in Japan was the main theme of Yanaihara’s “The Cherry Orchard”, as she used the ghost of a military past as a powerful motive throughout the play. Not only the actors’s bodies, but the profound nuances of Japanese language itself were used to appeal to the audience and enhance its awareness of a debate that doesn’t seem to reach a conclusion too soon.

There were many more performances worth mentioning, which I hope to be able to bring up at another time. For now I am just looking forward to seeing what 2015 brings 🙂

The Story is Freed from its Curse – “Yotsuya Zotanshu” and “Yotsuya Kaidan”

Yotsuya Zotanshu” and “Yotsuya Kaidan”are two linked promenade works by Shigeki Nakano and Kaku Nagashima which were part of the Festival/Tokyo program in 2013. These two works gave us the opportunity to reconsider what is the essence of a story that keeps being retold over the centuries. They dealt with a story from Edo period Japan (1603-1868), known under the name of “Yotsuya Kaidan”, transposing it into the urban space of nowadays. The effect of this transposition was surprising, showing that the original story itself is very “plastic”, easily adaptable to conditions very different from the ones in which it first emerged.

Festival/Tokyo 2013 "Yotsuya Kaidan" (photo by Kazue Kawase)

Festival/Tokyo 2013 “Yotsuya Kaidan” (photo by Kazue Kawase)

Going back in history, “Yotsuya Zotanshu” is originally the name of a collection of urban legends from the beginning of the eighteenth century in the city of Edo (the historical name for Tokyo), and one of the most famous tales among them is the story of a tragic woman: Tamiya Oiwa. Betrayed by her husband Iyemon and chased away from home, she disappears, but from that day on until 30 years afterwards, everybody related to her, especially Iyemon’s new family, encounters an unnatural death. Based on these urban myth and 100 years afterwards, the Kabuki play “Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan” was created. However, the playwright Tsuruya Nanboku took the liberty of changing the plot radically in order to bolster the drama and to intensify the visual effects of the stage performance. Thus in the Kabuki version, Oiwa gets poisoned by her rival, becomes disfigured and her dead body is thrown in a river, nailed down to a wooden board. Moreover, her ghost repeatedly appears to haunt Iyemon until his death.

Oiwa’s story is undoubtedly the most popular kwaidan (怪談 “horror story”), as everyone in Japan knows it and feels sympathetic to the heroine. Thanks to the visual culture associated with the story – combining visual art, stage and film remakes – Oiwa remains very vivid in the collective imagination of the Japanese.

However, now nearly 200 years after the premiere of the Kabuki version, Shigeki Nakano and Kaku Nagashima have recreated both “Yotsuya Zotanshu” and “Yotsuya Kaidan” into contemporary fictions in which the story was presented in the form of promenade performances in two areas in Tokyo – Yotsuya (四ツ谷) in Chiyoda ward and Yotsuya (四家) in Adachi ward.

The Yotsuya Oiwa Inari Tamiya shrine (Shinjuku-ku), part of the Yotsuya Zotanshu tour

The Yotsuya Oiwa Inari Tamiya shrine (Shinjuku-ku), part of the Yotsuya Zotanshu tour

Before taking part in “Yotsuya Zotanshu”, the members of the audience were handed a booklet with photographs of the Yotsuya area of today, against which we could read a brief summary of Oiwa’s story. The starting point was either Shufu-kaikan Plaza F (“Ladies’ Hall Plaza F”) or Square Kojimachi Hotel, which is renowned as a place for wedding ceremonies. (Can it be just a coincidence that these places are associated with women?) After a brief introduction, we departed for a guided tour through the Yotsuya and Shinjuku areas. The first stop was on the bridge over Sotobori channel (the outer moat to the Imperial Palace), which is said to be the same as it was in the Edo period. Walking along the tiny backstreets, we encountered small temples where time seems to have stopped. They were all related to “Yotsuya Kaidan” or to the age when Oiwa and her spouse Iyemon are supposed to have lived. The tour ended at a small altar that was built a long time ago in the memory of Oiwa – or, to be exact, in order to appease her vengeful soul.

“Yotsuya Kaidan”, on the other hand, was a new version of Oiwa’s story, wittily written by Shigeki Nakano himself. In this updated narrative, Oiwa is a university student, dreaming of becoming an “idol”. She meets Iyemon at the bar where they are both employed as part-time workers and they fall in love. However, to Oiwa’s disgrace, Iyemon is already married. Upset, she leaves him off and disappears around the Yotsuya crossing of Gotanno area. All the signs show that she is headed for a new beginning in her life, with the motto: “Hope is all that we have.”For this tour the members of the audience were given maps with the places related to the new Oiwa and her story, such as the bar where the two meet, the riverside where they talk about breaking up, or the restaurant where they have their last date. This time the spectators travel alone, free to choose their pace and to enjoy the atmosphere of the area.

Just like in the case of Nagashima’s “Yotsuya Zotanshu”, you cannot help but realize that if this were not a tour performance, you would never have visited and strolled around so freely in the area. The concept of these works creates the framework for us to see the city with new eyes, through the filter of this story.

Flowers at the Oiwa Shrine

Flowers at Oiwa’s Shrine

By letting the city speak – or better said, by giving us the opportunity to listen to the city’s voice– these promenade works are determined to make us realize that Oiwa’s story is there, among thousands of other stories, old and new. The place names that haven’t changed since the Edo period, the plants, the rivers that cross the city, the old temples that have been named after the characters of “Yotsuya Kaidan” – they all serve as reminders, pieces of memories that should help us reconstruct the story. Of course, the creators themselves, as well as the audience – who is the actual performing agent in these promenade works – are well aware that the story will never be the same as the original one. In the minds of the audience emerges a new version of “Yotsuya Kaidan” –one which borrows the structure of the old popular horror story, but is transposed into the Tokyo of our times, personalized by the experience and the perspective of the spectators from the twenty-first century. For example, the fact that Shigeki Nakano’s Oiwa is a student, working part-time just like many people of the same age, contributes a great deal in breaking her ghastly, otherworldly image and bringing her closer to us.

This reminds us that the true essence of any story which endures over the centuries is its mutability, its adaptability to the conditions of each new generation. If stories do not change, if they do not receive new elements with each retelling, and far from being “protected”, in fact they might very soon end up forgotten. Therefore, we might say that what ensures the long-lasting popularity of a story is its openness to change.

These two linked promenade works powerfully suggest that it’s not enough just to feel pity toward Oiwa. Her story is in our hands and we can choose the ending that we want for it. This also goes for other stories, including the epic stories which are our lives in this society – marked from time to time by irreversible tragic events. “Yotsuya Zotanshu” and “Yotsuya Kaidan” are about the courage to rewrite a story whose ending was originally sad and full of resentment: the ambition of turning that ending into a hopeful one. Unlike her Edo-period counterpart, the Oiwa of the twenty-first century has the strength to look into the future, with no resentment toward the ones who did her wrong. In Shigeki Nakano’s words, the dreaded Iwa (岩) has become “celebration” (iwai 祝).


(* This article has first appeared on the “Blog Camp in F/T” platform, a Festival/Tokyo 2013 program for young critics lead by performing arts journalist Iwaki Kyoko, and was reblogged with permission.)

When the Performing Body Becomes a Voice – “Prolog?”

Elfriede Jelinek’s drama texts are a challenge to any theatre director because they are completely open to all interpretations. The writer provides no “characters” or “plot”, let alone stage directions, so there is nothing there for the director to determine the way in which they should be staged. Surely, Jelinek’s series of plays prompted by the nuclear accident at Fukushima – “Fukushima –Epilog” and “Kein Licht.” – were not written with the Japanese stage in mind. Those texts are there for anyone to direct, and they have actually already been staged – in Cologne (2011), Salzburg (2012) and recently in Vienna and Graz. But since the Japanese were affected by the disaster directly, there is indeed a kind of expectation that Japanese directors would be the ones to make the most out of these plays.

It must be said from the start that Jelinek‘s plays are not meant to be enjoyable. They have a quality of addressing the listener directly: provoking the audience with outrage, anger and irony. In “Prolog?” the author seems to take on the role of a “shaman”, a medium-like presence, bringing to light the voices which otherwise would be left unheard. However, these voices are not, so to speak, “characters”. For instance, in Jelinek’s dialogue between “me” and “you”, between the accuser and the accused, between victim and perpetrator, the boundary is very thin, almost indiscernible. With no characters and no narrative, the text is completely open. The director is free to choose the number of characters he brings on stage, the theatrical genre or method he employs (“Kein Licht.” was a “Sprechoper” on the Austrian stage, for example), and he can even choose which part of the play he would like to focus on in order to emphasize certain aspects of the content. That is why Akio Miyazawa’s attempt to stage “Prolog?” with the means of Noh theatre, unarguably the most “formal” performing art extant in Japan, has been a most inspired one.

First and foremost, the stage borrows the structure of a Noh stage, with its typical hashigakari – a prolongation that connects the stage with the left side of the backstage. In mugen nō (“dream Noh”), which is probably the most popular category of Noh plays, the main character is usually a ghost appearing in a traveler’s dream. Here the hashigakari is seen as the path that connects “this world” with the “other world”, the place where the ghost is coming from. In other words, right from the beginning of the performance, just by seeing the structure of the stage, we already receive a hint about the key in which Miyazawa interpreted the dramatic text: the characters will most probably be apparitions, souls of the dead wandering around unappeased. In fact, the director went a step further by covering the stage in dirt, making it look like a burial ground.

In this tension-laden space the bodies of the five actresses enter slowly, in a slow tempo reminding us again of Noh. As they take over their roles, they go in and out of the slow tempo. All the actresses get their turn to speak, but just like in Noh theatre, the performers are responsible for roles, they do not represent characters. Their roles and their lines are handed over from one to the other, suggesting the image of a sea of voices–as one voice comes into the forefront, the others fade out. As to what they say, their lines are fragments of statements, words of resentment, disrupted dialogues and shouts – directed toward the audience rather than to each other.

F/T13 Jelinek series: Prolog?, directed by Akio Miyazawa (Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre, Nov 30th - Dec 8th)

F/T13 Jelinek series: Prolog?, directed by Akio Miyazawa (Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre, Nov 30th – Dec 8th)

Among them all there is a particular phrase that is repeated over and over again: “The staging will fail!” In German, there is the same word for “staging” and “representation” – “Darstellung” and the Japanese translation of the work (by Tatsuki Hayashi) uses both words, well aware that the dual nuance is important for the meaning of the play. Director Miyazawa focuses on “staging”, a self-mocking allusion to the performance for which he is responsible. However, these words are meant to be a menacing prediction which definitely cannot mean only the staging of the play itself. If we think about the tension that is the theme of this play, the tension between representation of reality and reality itself, then it becomes clear that Jelinek’s prophecy has a long range. Although written as the last in her series of texts triggered by the nuclear disaster as an extension of “Kein Licht.”, this work is a “prologue” because it is a prophecy. It predicts that the scenario that the authorities in power are putting up will fail, because no one will believe a representation of reality that is fake.

By using the space and the basic ideas regarding movement and tempo from Noh theatre, Miyazawa manages to give form to a dramatic text that is open-ended, making it possible for it to be staged and its message conveyed. It is only with a directorial approach that this work becomes complete and performable. However, the director seems to be fully aware that it would be a mistake to force the formality of Noh theatre into Jelinek’s text. That is why the form is powerfully disrupted at a certain moment, when the actresses dance frenetically to very loud and high-paced hard rock – the ultimate expression of rage and counter-reaction to a state of affairs that is imposed on the individual.

When faced with a dramatic text, there are several options for the theatre director. One can respect the original meaning and intent of the play, but interpret it as originally as possible, conferring one’s own “colors” on it through the staging. The second option is to completely dismantle it and take an opposing stance towards the playwright, turning the meaning of the text upside down. Or, the third option is that the director can do everything in his powers to render the message of the play as accurately as possible, paying respect to the auctorial voice.

After a careful and in-depth reading of “Prolog?”, Miyazawa has managed to ensure that Jelinek’s voice takes the foreground and reaches the audience. The author speaking on behalf of the dead possessed only words at first, but the bodies of the five actresses and the “form” borrowed from Noh theatre now make the work complete, functioning as means for that voice from beyond to come out and reach us, the audience. It is a powerful, provocative voice, calling out for us to keep questioning the validity of the images and representations that are imposed on us.

(* This article has first appeared on the “Blog Camp in F/T” platform, a Festival/Tokyo 2013 program for young critics lead by performing arts journalist Iwaki Kyoko, and was reblogged with permission.)

“words” – a trip through the space-time continuum

Director Murakawa Takuya 村川拓也, known for his documentary theatre works like “Zeitgeber” (2011), presented at Festival/Tokyo 2012 the project “words“, which documents the one-week trip to the Tōhoku region that he embarked on together with his collaborators, several months after the disaster that afflicted the region in March 2011. A long silence marks the beginning of the performance. When the two actors start talking, they speak in turns, describing in full detail what they experienced, saw and thought during their trip. However, the stories they tell are devoid of gestures, relying completely on words. As if to compensate for the lack of movement, their discourse is being translated on the spot into the sign language.

The words of the people on stage lead the audience into an imaginary journey through the cities and villages of Miyagi, Iwate and Fukushima. Staying true to what they perceived themselves during their trip, the actors give a vivid description of those places and of the people they met there. As a result, facts are inevitably mixed with scenarios that no doubt happened only in the travelers’ imaginations. Nonetheless, the audience keeps following the actors through the windings of their streams of consciousness, because their words are all that the spectators have at their disposal in order to reconstruct the story.

"words" (Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre, November 8th - 11th, 2012)

“words” (Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre, November 8th – 11th, 2012)

All along this “trip”, the extremely detailed landscape descriptions, the very personal circuit of thoughts of the actors, and even their inner monologues are being transposed in the sign language. What seems at first to be an enstrangement between words and gestures turns out to be a double discourse: the gestures of the sign language interpreter are words for the eyes, such as what the actors are saying are words for the ears. In this way, the audience is faced with an overflow of words directed at both its visual and auditory channels of perception.

The same stream of thoughts accounts for another exciting challenge in store for the audience, which involves the experiencing of time. In spite of the endeavors of the local people to go on with their lives after the disaster, the ruins and, most of all, the many cemeteries are constant reminders of the time when the tsunami hit. With the shadow of that time always in background, there is the “present time” of the story, which unfolds as the actors describe their experiences during the trip. Nobody would have expected that yet anothertime dimension, namely “right now” – the time when the play is being performed – would also be brought into the story. In order to shift the attention of the spectators towards the here and now of the performance, microphones are turned towards the audience. During the long moments of silence, their very own silence – disrupted only by the occasional coughs of the members of the audience – is being projected back towards the spectators. As a viewer, you experience for a moment the illusion that you might hear your own breathing amidst the echo of that silence.

In fact, the words “here” and “now” are repeated several times in the actors’ discourse, but each time they refer to different coordinates: the “here” of the theatre and the “here” of Minami Sōma, the “now” of the theatre and the “now” of the actors’ trip in Tōhoku. You realize very soon that the border between these separate coordinates has no materiality in the plane of imagination and that you are able to wander freely between then and now, between there and here. You even have the sudden revelation that to accompany the actors in their long walks through the villages and cities of North-Eastern Japan has been to go back and forth through space-time. What the audience has been witnessing all along is not more and not less than space dissolving in time, and time flowing into space.

In this performance showing an image of the present-day Tōhoku, several months after the disaster, the past is not allowed to overwhelm the present. At the same time, the people living right now are not allowed to distance themselves from the events of the past; they are not allowed to forget them.

With all its subtleties, “words” is a daring project that engages the spectator fully in the re-construction of the story. Not only does it push the boundaries of theatricality, but it also sheds new light onto what the theatre viewer can experience from the audience seat.

(* This article has first appeared on the “Blog Camp in F/T” platform, a Festival/Tokyo 2012 program for young critics lead by performing arts journalist Iwaki Kyoko, and was reblogged with permission.)

The nearest you can get to Fukushima without leaving Tokyo

“Kein Licht II”, performed in November 2012 during Festival/Tokyo, was adapted from one of the two texts written by Elfriede Jelinek in response to the nuclear disaster that happened in Fukushima. Director Takayama Akira, founder of the theatrical unit Port B, has taken on the task of staging this play.

The performance was conceived as a “tour” through places in Fukushima, whose landscape has been reconstructed in various locations in the Shinbashi area of Tokyo. Leaving the comfortable audience seats behind, the “spectators” of this work embark on the tour individually and follow exact indications, in order to move from one location to another. Amidst the setting created in each location, the participants listen to fragments of Jelinek’s play through a portable radio that they each carries.

Shinbashi transfigured during the Port B performance of "Kein Licht II"

Shinbashi transfigured during the Port B performance of “Kein Licht II”

The fact that the landscape recreated here is faithful to the original one in Fukushima is proven by the images on the postcards that contain the route indications. The particular characteristics of photography as an artistic medium best highlights the harsh reality of the contaminated area, namely that time has stopped there and that it has become a deserted place. Where there were people just moments ago, there is no one anymore now. Each setting conveys the desolation brought on by the unexpected catastrophe. At the same time, every location suggests the presence of an invisible element that keeps people away from their homes and workplaces, from schools and playgrounds. In this context, the use of the radio is also a subtle allusion to radiation. However, the meaning of the radio is taken one step further in this performance, for it also suggests that there are things that remain unseen and unheard, unless you adjust yourself to the right frequency.

The act of transposing Fukushima onto Tokyo, 226 km away from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear power plant, is in itself provocative, taking a critical stance towards any discourse about Fukushima held while maintaining a distance from the place. It is that very distance that Takayama Akira’s concept argues with.

The dramatic text itself is brought to life through the voices of high school students from Fukushima. Conceived as a long discourse of mourning, it pleads the fact that the price we have to pay for using light is just too big. There is anger, repentance and forlornness behind every line, but what surprises the listener most is the sound of the phrases. As if the catastrophe had affected not only people and environment, but also the language itself, the words of “Kein Licht II” have a disconcerting sharpness to them.

By articulating aspects that the Japanese phrase would rather level out or hide under a veil of ambiguity out of a well-meant consideration for the listener, the translation has chosen to keep the structure of the original German text and, together with it, the particular atmosphere of a language that is by its nature more appropriate for expressing critical stances. Transposing the discourse imagined by Jelinek into natural-sounding Japanese would have meant making the discourse milder, with all the sharp points erased out. But at least when denouncing the aftermath of the Fukushima accident, an incisive – even though outlandish – discourse seems to be the right choice.

Port B "Kein Licht II"

Port B “Kein Licht II”

With all the linguistic and structural particularities of the text, the task of weaving it into the tour performance concept is all the more remarkable. The result is one that is highly experiential for the audience. First of all, the very existence of the spectator is a condition sine qua non for the development of the performance. By sharing information concerning the performance with the production staff, by moving from one location to another and by observing each setting in its own context,the members of the audience become participants in their own right in the creation of this work.

Secondly, the spectator witnesses the transfiguration of Shinbashi. There is actually a reason why this particular area in Tokyo was chosen for the staging of Fukushima; it is revealed within the very first location and it is one of the most thought-provoking aspects of the performance. Nonetheless, the sudden transformation of the once familiar setting is a thrilling experience. You are given the occasion to step into places in the neighborhood you would probably never enter otherwise. On your way from one location to another you might meet other participants, whom you recognize by the radios and the postcards they are carrying. You might exchange knowing smiles with them at the thought that you are sharing the same experience, unknown to the passers-by, who might only find your actions somewhat suspicious.

The Port B tour performances, such as “Kein Licht II”, are are highly conceptual works, rooted in our most urgent reality , designed to make audience rethink their everyday surroundings. In a crisis situation the place you think you know like the palm of your hand becomes a foreign, dangerous place. I can only wish that everybody would experience this as theatre, in the Port B version, and not in reality.

More on Festival/ Tokyo 2012 “Kein Licht II” in this excellent article by William Andrews on Tokyo Stages.

*Update: Since September 12th through October 5th Port B’s latest project “Evakuieren” takes place in the Rhein-Main region in Germany. (Images here and German language info available here) For those who are in the area, it is certainly worth experiencing.

(* This article has first appeared on the “Blog Camp in F/T” platform, a Festival/Tokyo 2012 program for young critics lead by performing arts journalist Iwaki Kyoko, and was reblogged with permission.)



A play within a play within a memory – “Record of a Journey to Antigone, and Its Performance”

The Festival/Tokyo 2012 performance of marebito theatre company had been awaited anxiously by everyone who was lucky enough to hear of this project and follow its traces on the internet. The first stage of the performance had been actually going on on a special website and on Twitter since August 2012. What we were able to witness from November 15th through 18th (2012) at the Nishi-Sugamo Arts Factory has been the second stage of performance, conceived as an occasion for the characters and their audience to reenact the story in their memory. The choice of venue, a former school in an area of Tokyo known for its aging population, is also apt – a site fully imbued with the past.

The main plot and concept centers around a theatre group planning and conducting a performance of Sophocles’ Antigone for a blind man in Fukushima. Three other parallel stories unfold at the same time, with one character connecting all these threads together.

As well as the “performance” that took place in the main space, the old school gymnasium, of the Nishi-Sugamo Arts Factory – featuring the Antigone actors-playing-actors seemingly “acting” their roles – the audience could also experience sound installations created by Araki Masamitsu on two floors of the adjacent building. One, “Transit Melody: A Man Who Went Fishing on the Coast of Fukushima”, was a collection of sounds from the area devastated by the earthquake last year, while “Transit Melody: A Jukebox Wrapped in Smoke” consisted in soundscapes from various locations in Fukushima, conceived as an exhibition of tapes that the audience could play freely. According to the artist’s statement during a talk session, perspective – the position that one chooses when observing an object, in this case, Fukushima – played an essential role in the conception of the works. The importance of choosing one’s perspective is also alluded to in the theatrical performance in the gymnasium. The idea that someone can see one landscape but fail to see other sides of reality underlies the entire concept of the project like a red thread.

Prior to the Nishi-Sugamo Arts Factory installation and performance, the profiles of the characters had been taking shape gradually in time, with every record they left themselves on blogs, Twitter and YouTube. All along, the audience had been exposed to their thoughts, photos, videos and interviews with people who used to live in Iitate-mura and Minami Sōma, districts that have been severely affected by radiation. Moreover, there had even been occasions to witness short episodes of the story taking place publicly in Tokyo and Fukushima: two characters meeting by chance in Shinjuku, the meetings of the theatre group in a café, the mysterious apparition of one of the characters handing her visit card randomly to people on the street, two lovers being stalked by a woman in Kōenji. In other words, we have been able to witness theatrical fiction permeating the everyday reality in Tokyo and Fukushima.

Marebito no kai, “Record of a Journey to Antigone, and Its Performance” (Festival/Tokyo 2012 performance)

Marebito no kai, “Record of a Journey to Antigone, and Its Performance” (Festival/Tokyo 2012 performance)

The traces left by the characters on the internet have been working like seeds planted in the audience’s imagination, providing the conditions for the story to take contour. This process has made possible for the performance to take place literally in the memory of the characters and the audience, who met for the first time in Nishi-Sugamo. While the characters were standing in an empty space, entrusting their bodies to the process of reminiscence, the spectators were free to move among them, recalling the bits and pieces of information related to the story that they had learned beforehand through the internet.

Faced with this unusual theatrical experience, the spectator tries at first to find his/her own place among the reminiscing bodies of the actors, and little by little one feels the joy of recognizing the characters: Ikiune Minoru, the self-claimed playwright, inspired by the charming apparition of Hibari Umemi to write his own version of Antigone and to envision her in the main role; Oki Momoko– the representative of the theatre company, responsible for planning and directing the performance of Antigone in Fukushima; Hibari Umemi, the actress who is to play Antigone – she identifies with the role on an unconscious level and there is something tragic about her every gesture that reveals her identity; the young woman standing close to her can be none other than Yoshimoto Mika, who is to play Ismene, Antigone’s sister; Rosso Jun (whose tweets, written with a sharp tongue, will surely be missed), in charge of the role of Haemon, and KurumeTōki, whose dignified stature calls to mind king Creon. Slightly apart from them one recognizes the two lovers, “Iroyama” and “Kinoshita”, being watched from the opposite corner, by “I” – the woman stalking them. The easiest to recognize is surely Kuwabara Sanae, whose white apparition works like an omen, connecting the crowd in Tokyo with the almost deserted streets of Fukushima.

There are actually subtle elements that guide the spectator’s memory in identifying the characters and reconstructing the story in his or her mind. The actors are not just standing there – they sometimes whisper, as if talking to themselves; other times they briefly gesticulate, oblivious to themselves. Time is an essential element in this process, for the actors seem to synchronize their memories with the help of the five clocks in the room. Moreover, when two characters happen to face each other, the audience suddenly becomes aware that they are remembering each other. With their memories engaging in dialogue, the relationships and the tensions between the characters become transparent.

This process of mutual remembering culminates towards the end of the performance, when all the characters seem to appear in Ikiune Minoru’s imagination. We realize that he has been the character that connects the separated threads into one story – a new version of Antigone, which has never been enacted in reality, but only in his dream. He is the one who went alone to Fukushima, only to find out the truth about the area affected by radiation, and, along with it, the truth about his feelings for Hibari Umemi, revealed to him by the mysterious Kuwabara Sanae. In spite of the revelation, Ikiune chooses to remain a prisoner of his own illusions, blind to the surrounding reality, becoming a tragic character himself. The image of king Oedipus hearing the truth from the foreteller Tiressias overlaps with the image of these two characters, providing for another dimension to the story, one that reaches far into archetypal memory.

The journey that the characters embark on takes them on the edge between life and death, between reality and delusion. Against a background of overwhelming, ineffable emotions, a new Antigone is unfolding in the minds of the audience, one that is pleading against oblivion through the unheard voices of the dead. The resulting work is a theatre of memories, one that reminds us of the mugen noh (“dream Noh”) plays, in which ghosts appear in the dream of a traveler reminiscing on the past. Like the centuries-long tradition of Noh plays, the theatre of memories is only possible if the characters and the audience share the same knowledge about past events.

In the case of “Record of a Journey to Antigone, and Its Performance”, the internet media used for recording the events has played a crucial role in disseminating the necessary background information towards the audience. Besides their function as sources of information, social networking systems and blogs are also platforms of human interaction, where we act using virtual identities – “characters” that correspond more or less like our real selves. In the same way, the characters of “Journey to Antigone” have been acting online through their fictional identities. As an audience, we were able to see for ourselves that the border between virtual identities and fictional ones is extremely fragile, making possible for fiction to infiltrate in our everyday reality.

For three months the actors have been playing their roles online, culminating with a performance in which their bodies create a space permeated by memories that enables the re-enactment of the events in the audience’s memory. Standing in the dim light and entrusting their bodies to memories for seven hours in a row, facing the curious, unprepared and, most often than not, provocative glances of the spectators, the actors have achieved an astonishing, unrepeatable performance. The concept of a play within a play is thus taken to a whole new dimension, made possible through the memories that the characters and the audience have in common. The visions and memories encapsulating each other have created a truly unforgettable experience that will no doubt linger for a while in the hearts of the audience.

by Ramona Taranu

(* This article has first appeared on the “Blog Camp in F/T” platform, a Festival/Tokyo 2012 program for young critics lead by performing arts journalist Iwaki Kyoko, and was reblogged with permission.)