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 July

I wouldn’t be able to tell how or when, but it’s already July! Let’s just say that “time flies when you’re having fun” and keep it there 🙂

I’ve been spending a lot of time in Ōji (Kita ward) lately, as I’ve been asked to write a report on the Satō Sakichi Theatrical Festival 2014 佐藤佐吉演劇祭2014+ that has been going on there since June 25th.  For about a month there are twelve theatre companies performing in several venues around the Ōji small theatre 王子小劇場. There have been some very nice stages during the first half of the festival.  Henteko restoran “The weird restaurant”, an adaptation of Miyazawa Kenji’s  Chūmon no ooi ryōriten “The restaurant with many orders”, performed by Kaki kuu kyaku, and Wa Wa Flamingo’s Eiga “Film” are worth mentioning here. The festival will be going on until July 21st with performances by very young units, like Nakanaide, dokukinoko-chan, Momojiriken, Gareki no taiko and others.

Ōji shōzokue no ki Ōmisoka no kitsunebi (Utagawa Hiroshige, 1857)

Ōji shōzokue no ki Ōmisoka no kitsunebi (Utagawa Hiroshige, 1857)

The Satō Sakichi Festival has a very local color to it – in fact, one of its objectives is to contribute to the revival of Ōji, not because it were a deserted place or anything, but because this town has actually a long tradition of being a pretty animated place. You may have heard of it thanks to Utagawa Hiroshige’s work, Ōji shōzokue no ki Ōmisoka no kitsunebi (“The strange fires at New Year’s around the enoki tree in Ōji”) And one of the merits of watching a festival like this is realizing that besides the theatre that is engaged in an international dialogue, there is also a very flourishing small scale theatre in Japan, targeting local audiences. A festival like Satō Sakichi can offer an insight into the traits and potential of this kind of theatre.

Here are some other performances going on this month that I would heartily recommend:

  • lolo ロロ, one of the very promising young theatre companies of the moment, will have their first performance in quite a while, “Embracing the rising sun tonight”『朝日を抱きしめてトゥナイト』(July 11th – 21st at the Komaba Agora Theater) . You can get a glimpse of the atmosphere of this work by watching the short promotion video they created:

 

  • Gotanda-dan, "Nights in Gotanda" (July 22nd -27th)

    Gotanda-dan, “Nights in Gotanda” (July 22nd -27th)

    Gotanda-dan 五反田団, the unit lead by playwright and novelist Maeda Shirō, known in Japan and abroad for works like “Is there no one alive?”『生きてるものはいないのか』, will perform their latest work “Nights in Gotanda” 『五反田の夜』from July 22nd through the 27th at Atelier Helicopter. “Nights in Gotanda” is a play taking on the March 3rd disaster in Tōhoku, an attempt to imagine what people living in Tokyo might have felt when trying to be of help to those affected by the calamity.

 

  • Hamlet”, directed by Sugihara Kunio 杉原邦生, will be performed at Owlspot (August 1st -3rd). I know it’s a bit early to talk about August, but this is one of the most awaited events of the summer and we wouldn’t want to miss it. Sugihara’s “Hamlet” is already on in Kyoto (until July 7th) and will be performed in Toyohashi (Aichi) and Sapporo before coming to Tokyo.

With that said, I’m going to follow the vague but undeniable scent of the holidays, which is already filling the air, and just see where it leads me 😀

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.