Tokyo Theatres in May

It finally became warm in Tokyo and we are right in the middle of the Golden Week, so there is no soul wishing to stay indoors now. The world of the stage this month has some quite interesting events going on. Here is my pick up:

  • The Tokyo Metropolitan Theater is hosting this year’s edition of TACT (Theater Arts for Children and Teens) Festival between the 3rd and 11th of May. Taking to account the companies participating – Corpus (Canada), a unit directed by Martin Zimmermann and Dimitri de Perrot (Switzerland), L’Immediat (France) and B-Floor Theatre (Thailand) – thought-provoking physical theatre intertwined with circus elements seems to be at the heart of the festival’s concept.

You might ask why I’m mentioning this event on a blog about Japanese theatre. To be honest, I think all theatre lovers here, Japanese or non-Japanese, might well use a breath of fresh air. The variety of theatre forms in Japan is amazing, but a type of performance coming from the outside that could generate a new kind of surprise and a new kind of thought about stage arts is more than welcome. Both for audiences and for local theatre creators the TACT /Festival 2014 promises to be a stimulating experience.

  • One of the most promising young theatre units of the moment, FAIFAI 快快, will present their latest work Henshin (kari) 『へんしん(仮)』(“Metamorphosis”) at the Komaba Agora Theatre from May 9th through the 19th. FAIFAI has been active under the present name since 2008 and has become known in Japan and abroad for pursuing an original type of theatrical expression, one that stays true to the reality of its generation. The unit’s work “My name is I LOVE YOU” has been awarded the ZKB Patronage Prize at the Zürcher Theater Spektakel in 2010 and its’ work Ringo received the 57th Kishida Kunio Playwrights Award. That is to say that their latest work deserves all our attention. For more information please visit the FAIFAI homepage (its English version is one of the clearest and most neatly kept up to date websites I’ve ever seen among Japanese theatre companies).
Edo ito ayatsuri ningyō za, "Artaud 24ji ++"

Edo ito ayatsuri ningyō za, “Artaud 24ji ++”

  • The string puppet theatre company Edo ito ayatsuri ningyō za 江戸糸あやつり人形座 will perfom Artaud 24 ji++『アウトー24時++』(“Artaud at 24 o’clock”) at the Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre from May 29th through June 1st. The work depicts the last day of Antonin Artaud, the man who has played a key role in the history of modern theatre. For such a subject to be approached through the means of the three centuries old Japanese string puppet theatre is an outstanding feat that will demonstrate the actuality and the flexibility of this art. For reference, I described my first encounter with the string puppet theatre in Japan elsewhere.

Having stated my expectations for this month as far as theatre is concerned, I wish you all a pleasant time in May 🙂

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“Miss Tanaka” – a case of tradition and modernity meeting on stage

Among the plays I have seen this month at the Ikebukuro Theatre Festival, Youkiza’s performance “Miss Tanaka” was by far the most impressive one.

When thinking of puppet theatre in Japan, the first thing that comes to mind is ningyō jōruri (bunraku), which flourished in the Edo period (1603-1868), where the body of the puppet is maneuvered from the inside, by two or three operators. Nonetheless string puppet theatre (ayatsuri ningyō shibai  あやつり人形芝居) has a tradition just as long – or even longer, according to historical records which mention puppet plays during shrine festivals before Nara period (710-784).

Youkiza 結城座 is a string-puppet theatre company, founded in 1635 in the city of Edo. At present lead by Yūki Magosaburō XII, it has established a name for performances that combine the traditional techniques of string puppetry with contemporary stage artistry (sound effects, computer graphics and projection technology), giving the audience a unique theatre experience.

“Miss Tanaka” was written by the Australian playwright John Romeril, who found inspiration for it in the stories of pearl divers from Wakayama prefecture, who went to work and live in Australia around the beginning of the 20thcentury.

“Miss Tanaka”, performed by Youkiza (September 26th – 30th, 2012)

The play tells the story of Kazuhiko, a youth born in Broome, Western Australia, to a Japanese father and an Aborigene mother. He is haunted by memories of the death of his mother, killed by a shark while she was searching for pearls at sea. The newly arrived chief of the Anglo-Oriental Pearling Company, Charles Mott, a young Jewish trader from London, seeks Kazuhiko’s assistance as a translator for his business. One day, because of his father’s falling into debt, Kazuhiko finds himself in trouble, with two diver chieftains fighting over him. He is saved by the appearance of his father’s beautiful niece, Miss Tanaka Kittso, who asks the two chieftains for pardon on behalf of her uncle. Kazuhiko is thus saved, but Miss Tanaka has to marry one of the chieftains. This is when Mott intervenes. Fascinated by the beauty and manners of Miss Tanaka, he wants her for himself. In order to win her heart he shows her the very precious pearls that he is carrying the pockets of his jacket. However, when he is ready to confess his love to her, Miss Tanaka turns out to be Kazuhiko himself, who had to make use of this deceit to get out of trouble. During the stormy night that followes, Kazuhiko, wearing Mott’s jacket – with the pockets full of pearls, and his father run away to Darwin, and from there to the Philippines.

The memories of the past, the realities of a multicultural environment, and the shadow of the war being fought in Europe (the play is set in the 1930s) create a deep, far- reaching background to this story. Originally meant for human actors, the play revealed surprising possibilities for the puppet theatre.

Youkiza’s interpretation of the play was directed by Amano Tengai 天野天街, famous in Japan for staging the plays of Terayama Shūji 寺山修司 (1935-1983), a central figure of the Japanese avant-garde theatre scene of the late 60s and 70s.

During the performance, the puppets and the puppeteers who operate them had the same appearance. Apart from the puppets backed by their higher, human self, there is scene when one puppeteer operated a puppet that was itself operating another puppet – a very powerful image with meta-theatrical implications. Memories and thoughts of the ongoing war were being projected as images that seemed to tear the puppets and the humans apart.

The background music and all the sound effects were another impressive feature of this performance, as they were played live by three musicians on stage. Aborigene traditional songs were woven into an almost surreal soundscape, fitting perfectly to the stage inhabited by the puppets and their human doubles.

Youkiza’s interpretation of “Miss Tanaka” was a wonderful display of artistry, proving that the art of puppeteering can not only keep pace with the times, taking up the challenges of the contemporary theatre, but can even be one step ahead of the times.

I will leave you with images from of a previous performance by Youkiza, Kangan teitoku no matsuei 『宦官提督の末裔』 and a short documentary video on string-puppet theatre in Japan.

“Kangan teitoku no matsuei”, Youkiza  

Puppet theatre company Youkiza