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.)

This and that at the end of December

After the end of this year’s Festival/Tokyo it took me longer than I thought to “move out” from Ikebukuro, so I have to begin again by apologizing for not updating in a while. F/T absorbed our attention until the last day with very good performances. The winner of the F/T Award in the Emerging Artists Program went to Chong Wang and Théâtre du Rêve Expérimental for “The Warfare of Landmine 2.0“.

At the same time until December 15th an international Ibsen Festival had been going on at the Owlspot theatre, focusing on contemporary interpretations of “A Doll’s House” with artists coming from Belgium, Norway, Romania, Japan and Chile. This was also quite an engaging event, demonstrating once again that creative reworks of Ibsen’s play can emphasize the actuality and the artistic potential of this work.

On December 18th the theatre world around here was taken aback by the sudden announcement about the administration change of Festival/Tokyo. From next year F/T will have a new director (see official announcement here). The news was all the more surprising as it came with no official statement explaining the reason for this change. From its inauguration Festival/Tokyo has been organized six times under the supervision of curator Chiaki Soma, whose efforts and vision have shaped this event into the most eagerly awaited performing arts festival of each year. We all hope and expect that Festival/Tokyo will keep its high standards under the new leadership.

"Ground and Floor" (Chelfitsch) 14-23 December 2013, KAAT

“Ground and Floor” (Chelfitsch)
14-23 December 2013, KAAT

Meanwhile, from December 14th through the 23rd Chelfitsch performed their most recent work Jimen to yuka 『地面と床』(“Ground and Floor”) at the Kanagawa Arts Theatre. They are dealing with the theme of life and death in this work – to be more exact, with the living and the dead – and the work has been praised both for its take on the subject and for the performance style. It is a work appealing directly to the conscience of the people living nowadays, bringing up subjects like the responsibility we have towards the society we live in and verbalizing exactly the kind of guilt feelings and uncertainties that people around here avoid talking about. Although I have seen an open rehearsal of the stage back in April, I failed to see the performance now in December and I really regret it. To the initially announced number of performances two more were added, but tickets were sold out immediately.

I plan to update once more before the end of the year, so I’ll keep my best wishes until then 🙂 Have a great time!

Tokyo theatres in November

It happened. A whole month has passed without me posting any reviews on this blog 😐 The good side of all this is that I did see some very good performances in October – it is only the lack of time that didn’t allow me to write about them. And the other good side (!) is that there will definitely come a time for me to post those reviews. I promise it will be worth your while reading them, so stay tuned 🙂

In the meantime let’s see what the Tokyo stages have in store for November.

Festival/Tokyo, which is THE theatre event of the second half of this year, will be starting on November 9th with a program that promises to keep audiences enraptured. The theme of this year’s edition is “Travels in narratives”, giving us the opportunity to think on stories, on what they mean to us, how they change in time and how they transform us, helping us grow. Any place in the world has stories connected to it and theatre is one medium by which those stories can come to the surface. How will the city look like after its stories will be released from the veil of forgetfulness and will take over the quotidian for some time? It’s just a guess, but we will probably witness a transfiguration of the city through the stories that sleep underneath it – this is what I would call the highlight of this year’s Festival/Tokyo.


For a selection of works that I recommend heartily, please refer to this article on F/T 2013 that I wrote previously. Personally, I’m looking forward not only to the performances themselves, but also to the open events, symposia and talk events, which give us the rare opportunity to hear the artists talk about their works. In other words, I’m seriously considering moving my headquarters to Ikebukuro this month. Too bad that the Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre doesn’t allow sleeping in, ha ha ha… 🙂

From the last performances of BeSeTo Festival, which is still going on until November 10th, “Forge/Natsume Sōseki” 『偽造/夏目漱石』of theatre company Jūryoku/Note 重力/Note is worth checking out. Jūryoku/Note’s trademark is the original adaptation for the stage of texts written by established authors. In the past they dealt with Terayama Shūji’s texts in “My job – Terayama Shūji (1935-1983/1983-2012)” or with Elfriede Jelinek’s “Cloud.House.”, a work presented at Festival/Tokyo last year. This time they are turning to a classical figure of Japanese literature, Natsume Sōseki. It will be interesting to see how director Kashima Nobusuke’s special concern towards the text collaborates with the company’s latest experiments with theatrical space in order to project the figure of Natsume Sōseki into our times. “Forge/Natsume Sōseki” will be running from November 4th through 10th at Atelier Shunpusha.

As far as the noh stage is concerned, there will be a rare performance of Ikari kazuki 『碇潜』by the noh study association Tessenkai 銕仙会 at Hōshō nōgaku-dō on November 8th. Ikari kazuki is a play inspired by The Tale of the Heike, focusing on the battle at Dan no ura, where many warriors from both sides, the Taira and the Minamoto clans, have lost their lives. In order to reenact the battle, three boats will be brought on the stage – a rare sight in the case of noh, whose restrained use of props is well known.  A performance of noh Makiginu 『巻絹』and kyōgen Kane no ne 『鐘の音』are also in the program.

Whatever your choice, it is my hope that you’ll enjoy the festive atmosphere of this month with some good theatre 🙂