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 🙂

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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 🙂

Tokyo theatres in September

Daylight time getting shorter and rain falling almost every day are signs that we are enjoying the last days of summer. However temperatures are still high, good over 30°C, so there is probably no better place than the theatre for those seeking shelter from the heat 🙂

The event that everyone is talking about right now is the SIS Company production of Chekhov’s “The Seagull” 『かもめ』Kamome at the Bunkamura Theater Cocoon, running from September 4th through the 28th . Not only does it boast the direction of Keralino Sandorovich, one of the most original theatre creators of the moment, but it also comes with a remarkable cast, featuring names like Ikuta Tōma, Aoi Yū, Nomura Mansai and Ōtake Shinobu, who are best known as stars of the screen.

The performance that I’m personally looking forward to is “Dear Late Summer Sister” 『夏の終わりの妹Natsu no owari no imōto, which is the latest work of U-ench saisei jigyōdan 遊園地再生事業団, the theatre company run by Miyazawa Akio. I had the chance to hear a reading of the play back in July, that’s why I can tell for sure it is worth it. It is the story of Jahana Motoko, a woman born in Okinawa, who moves to Tokyo. She tries to get a license as an interviewer, in order to be able to ask people questions – about the earthquake that hit the Tōhoku region in 2011, about the U.S. military bases in Okinawa, things that the people around here have the tendency to avoid talking about. The whole frame of the story is permeated by the healthy humor and the broad theatrical vision that are Miyazawa’s trademark. It will be running at the Owlspot in Ikebukuro from September 13th through the 22nd.

Talking about play readings, the Kyōto based theatre company Chiten 地点, whose unforgettable staging of Elfriede Jelinek’s “Kein Licht” last year at Festival/Tokyo is stiil vivid in the memory of Tokyo audiences, will be doing a reading of Büchner’s “Lenz” at the Goethe-Institut Tokyo (September 13th -14th). Given the affinity of Chiten’s director Miura Motoi with the theatre of German speaking countries, it promises to be a very original interpretation of the classic. This reading is part of a series of events marking the anniversary of 200 years since the birth of Georg Büchner. A performance of “Woyzeck” combining dance and theatre in an experimental attempt to project this 19th century work into our times, is also part of the program (Komaba Agora theatre, September 13th-23rd). For more information, please visit the webpage of the Goethe-Institut.

From the smaller scale performances going on this month I picked up “Kappore!” 『かっぽれ!夏』of theatre company green flowers, winner of last year’s edition of Ikebukuro Theatre festival, an event organized by the local authorities of the Toshima district in Tokyo. Their prize-winning work Fukigenna Maria no kigen (“The deadline of bad-tempered Maria”) featured the story of Mori Mari, daughter of writer Mori Ōgai, and her inner struggles concerning the publication of her own novels. “Kappore!” focuses on a fictional family of rakugoka, performers of the art of rakugo – a kind of stand-up comedy that thrives in Japan ever since the Edo period. Where there is rakugo, there is laughter, so the play promises to be interesting. It will run from September 6th through the 8th at the Owlspot Theater.

Two performances at the Ōji shogekijo, Hana to sakana (“Flowers and fish”) by theatre group Jūnana senchi 十七戦地 (September 12th-17th), which promises to be a good-taste SF, and Ma-n-da-ra, an adaptation of a three-century old horror story by Gekidan Rokkotsumikandōkōkai 劇団肋骨蜜柑同好会 (September 19th – 23rd), are also among my pick-ups for this month.

Hagoromo © Noh.com

Hagoromo © Noh.com

The most awaited event of the month in the world of Noh is a special performance marking the anniversary of 30 years since the opening of the National Noh Theater, which will be held on September 17th. After the opening act – Tsurukame, a short congratulatory Noh, played by Kondō Kannosuke (Hōshō school), the program will feature Hagoromo “The Celestial Feather Robe”, with actor Tomoeda Akio of the Kita school playing the main role, then a kyōgen piece, Iori no ume, starring Nomura Man, and another Noh play in the end – the very entertaining Shakkyō, performed by Kanze Tetsunojō.

Hagoromo 『羽衣』is the story of a celestial maiden, whose robe of feathers is about to be taken away by a fisherman. As she cannot fly back to heaven without her robe, the maiden promises to perform a celestial dance, so she receives her robe back. After her dance of joy she thanks the fisherman and disappears into the sky. This very simple plot is the subject of various legends that are close to the heart of the Japanese, that is why this Noh play is one of the most often performed ones. The words of the angel – “doubt is a thing of the earth, there is no deceiving in the realm of the sky” – have a special echo and are the highlight of this Noh, besides the dance itself.

Please take the time to have a look at the stage photos of Hagoromo on Noh.com, as they will reveal why this Noh is held dear by everyone who has heard the story of the celestial maiden and her feather robe.