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Scenes from a recent production of Oriza Hirata's play, Balkan Zoo
Kiely Ramos


As the specter of Hollywood looms over Japan's film industry, innovative and intimate shogekijo ("little theaters") are carving a niche in the Tokyo art scene. Stuart Braun has the ticket.

Scene 1: Friday night, a back lane in central Tokyo and from the shadows, people file into a small theater in the hope of relieving, or forgetting, another stressful week in the metropolis. Once inside, the     pre-show build-up is tense. The audience - predominately young, well-dressed and thoughtful - is definitely not here to see a Broadway musical. Actors finally emerge amidst a spartan set, engaging in slow-paced movement and strains of barely audible monologue. But the hush around the 80-seat capacity theater is suddenly shaken by a booming drum 'n' bass rhythm. A bulk of the cast soon arrives on stage, throwing their bodies around the thinly lit room while abstract images splay out against the back wall.

Kiely Ramos

This is a long way from Shakespeare. Off-beat, dynamic and unpredictable, the acting is strong, the energy frenetic and it's all live, making a refreshing change from the detached experience of a night at the cinema. The small, irregularly-shaped and slightly run-down theater - Die Pratze in Kagurazaka - does not lend itself to extravagant staging: Much of the floor space is taken up by the audience - and the success of the show is hinged on strong scripts, performances and some low-budget but innovative multi-media effects.

Home to some 3000 theater groups and over 100 small theaters, Tokyo's own "off-Broadway" theater scene is booming. Concurrent festivals such are held throughout the year-in Feb and Mar the Shimokitazawa Theater Festival, Agora Theater's End of the Millennium Theater Festival and the 7th Kanagawa Geijutsu Festival are just a few of the programs on offer. And while some of the work can be hit and miss, quality independent theater occurs consistently throughout the week. With so much available, fringe theater, at around JY2500-JY3000 a ticket, is also relatively affordable. So while the shows are in Japanese - with an occasional splattering of English- - shogekijo is a must for anyone wanting to broaden their engagement with the contemporary arts in Tokyo.

Hirata takes a front seat in his Agora Theater
Maki Nibayashi

Beginnings
Tokyo's unique shogekijo theaters first emerged in the 1960s as a response to the prevalence of Western Realism on the Japanese stage. Ibsen, Chekhov, Shakespeare and the like were first imported to Japan in the 1920s by the shingeki (new theater) movement, which itself was a response to the refined stylization of indigenous Kabuki and Noh drama. But younger theater practitioners soon became disillusioned with this Western-influenced style and attempted to give contemporary theater a distinctly Japanese feel. Based around small playhouses in Tokyo, a new avant-garde and experimental theater emerged that reinfused traditional techniques with Western drama forms-a product of this movement was butoh, a tortuously slow and subtle style of dance/theater that has gone on to have a big influence worldwide. Henceforth known as the shogekijo-engeki or "small theater-based drama movement," successive generations of talented playwrights and directors such as Suzuki Tadashi, Kara Juro and Oriza Hirata have set Japanese theater on an unconventional and exciting new course.

Tokyo's "underground" theaters differ markedly from more well-known commercial theaters such as the National Theater and New National Theater still observing the traditional system of performance that originated in the Edo period - one-year contracts were made with actors who were to put on a set number of performances per year. Alternatively, the small theater movement has no regulatory structure, particularly since the companies and spaces are so heterogenous.

While shogekijo ranging in capacity from 30 to 200 are placed ubiquitously around the city, most are concentrated around Shimokitazawa, the once low budget but still popular precinct for Tokyo artists and students. The popular Suzunari ("The jam packed"), a diminutive theater hosting some of Tokyo's more innovative productions, was built, next to the Shimokitazawa cinema, in the late 1970s. As the shogekijo movement boomed in the '80s, a spate of new theatres, including the Honda and Off Off, sprung up in the area. Apart from these little theatres, a number of mid-sized venues such as Shinjuku's Kinokuniya Hall - a 418-seat theater incorporated into the bookstore of the same name - are utilized by underground theatre groups hoping to attract larger audiences.

Scene from the French production of Hirata's Tokyo Notes
Courtesy of Seinenden Theatre Company

Cutting edge
Oriza Hirata, who was at the peak of the shogekijo wave in the '80s, is part of the vanguard of contemporary Japanese theater. Slight, shy and aloof, he belies the myth of the robust, forthright artist. But at only 38, Hirata, who in 1982 founded the Komaba Agora Theater along with his influential Seinendan Theater Company, is the author of several books, and director of the Japanese Playwright Association, epitomizes the strength of the underground theater movement.

Responding to the earlier fascination with Western idioms in Japanese theater, Hirata is best known for developing a "colloquial theater" technique that redefined contemporary theater in Japan. "The theater tried to mimic Western styles of communication. When I look at these pieces I feel uncomfortable, alienated. 'Japanese people don't speak like that with each other.' That was the starting point for my own work," he said in a recent New York Times interview. Annie Bilton, an Australian playwright with a long involvement in the "ex-pat" theater scene in Tokyo, backs Hirata's sentiment: "in Western theater exposure is vital: We judge great acting as the art of channeling integrity, the exposition of truth through tragedy or comedy. To a Japanese audience, this obsession with the extremes of honesty may seem crude, mirroring the west's obsession with the individual ego."

Hirata's uncompromising approach to developing a distinctively Japanese theater style has attracted increasing interest from elsewhere. In 1999 Hirata spent two months in France working with local actors in a production of his best-known work, Tokyo Notes. Based on Yaujiro Ozu's 1953 film classic, Tokyo Story, the play depicts a self-absorbed Tokyo society which, in the year 2004, is oblivious to an apocalyptic war raging in Europe. The irony of Ozu's story was well-captured using Oriza's "quiet theater" technique - actors have their backs to the audience while engaging in multiple conversations in life - like situations. After touring the US late last year, Hirata's innovative approach proved a hit with the critics-"Showing the Quiet Profundity of Ordinary Life" read the headline of a New York Times review.

One of the "actors" from Balkan Zoo
Kiely Ramos

Underground
Such international success is due largely to the strength of the theater movement at home, particularly the untiring efforts of the 3000 largely self-funded groups that make up Tokyo's underground theater collective. The Shampoo Hat is a typical small theater group of only six people who work part-time and for little profit. Starting as a comedy act playing at cabaret style "show pubs," the group has created its own hybrid of humorous yet highly realist theater.

Sitting around a dimly lit room in the back of the Suzunari theater, the 20-something director - Akahori Masaki - smokes and drinks coffee while talking nonchalantly about his latest offering - aptly titled "The Shampoo Hat." Eschewing any particular theatrical style, Akahori is influenced by various mediums, including film - the name Wim Wenders creeps into the conversation. A meditation on the somewhat disaffected lives of a group of young men in Tokyo, his latest play, performed as part of the Shimokitazawa Theater Festival, is a comedy employing minimalist and distinctly Japanese staging and acting techniques.

The performance has the audience wavering between hilarity and deep contemplation, and Akahori is aware that his effort to communicate human thoughts and emotions through the portrayal of everyday life gives his work universal appeal. He particularly wants his plays to avoid the "beauty myth" propagated by mainstream entertainment since it betrays, in his words, the notion that "beauty is in the eye of the beholder." But getting the message across remains a part-time pursuit, and Akahori, like many young theater makers, is keen to break into some of the larger venues, quit his day job, and devote a bulk of his energy to the stage.

While underground theater offers few pecuniary incentives, it continues to allow small, independent companies to put on quality work and play to packed houses. As testified by Hirata's success, the continuing strength of the shogekijo movement has allowed local directors and actors to maintain their original vision, and as a result, to become increasingly influential overseas. Shigeo Makabe, founder and director of the OM-2 Interactive Performance Theater Company, toured his dynamic, multimedia production, Convulsions of Mr K2 - based on the psychotic ramblings of an institutionalized patient enduring clinical observation - to Chicago last November. Like Hirato, Shigeo's avant-garde theater style has developed an international reputation, leading to ongoing collaborations with actors and directors abroad. Having recently performed "Mr K2" in Tokyo in Japanese and English with both American and Japanese actors - including Kumiko Uchida and Shoko Muraoka, two luminaries of the local scene - Shigeo is working up a new show to take to Switzerland later in the year.

Psychotic rambling in OM-2's Convulsions of Mr K2
Courtesy of OM-2

East and West
While shogekijo's contemporary and innovative approach to theater has helped sustain its popularity, classical kabuki drama has been renovated in recent years to give it wider appeal. Utilizing multimedia technology, the emergence of "Super Kabuki" has made historical drama accessible to a younger and broader audience. With revolving screens and rising podiums lending to the spectacle, the kabuki venues around Ginza and Shinjuku are generally booked out far in advance.

Convinced by his kabuki training that "indigenous Japanese theater forms could expand to embrace the new and different while still maintaining their unique integrity," Yukikazu Kano launched his own "Nouveaux-Kabuki" hybrid in 1987, and continues to offer "a highly renegade theatrical vision that fuses East with West." Yukikazu's "Hanagumi Shibai" company has helped reinvent the classical drama form, making it a popular ticket on the international performing arts circuit. But while a world away from the diminutive shogekijo theater, a night out at the Kabuki includes, in addition to an English version of the program, an audio translation of the unfolding action.

Whether contemporary or classical, Tokyo's theater scene promises to be unpredictable. Unlike a film industry subject to a number of corporate and regulatory restrictions - Hirata describes Japanese film as "very controlled" - theater in Tokyo continues to live creatively and financially on the edge.


FEATURES:

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394: Sister act
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393: Reel time
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SEPTEMBER
392: Lap it up
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391: Everything old is new
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390: Cooking the books
Celebrity chef Nobu Matsuhisa’s in town with his new book in hand.....
389: Up from the underground
Japan's literary superstar Haruki Murakami is home for the duration
AUGUST
388: First wave
John McGee dives into Japan's art extravaganza
387: Water world
Matt Wilce explores Tokyo DisneySea
386: Open house
Many people are sleeping on the streets of Tokyo
385: A moveable feast
Some of the city's best yatai fare
384: Hair
A look at Tokyo's salon industry
JULY
383: Summer in the city
20 ways to make August a little more bearable
382: Tokyo Tomorrow
Stuart Braun tracks the future of the metropolis
381: From zero to hero
81-year-old Zero fighter Sadamu Komachi looks back
380: Island escapade
Journey to Odaiba
JUNE
379: Open-air fare
Tokyo's alfresco dining spots
378: Reel story
Reel in the summer's hottest movies
377: Sonic relief
Gear up for the summer's hottest music festivals
376: All at sea
No shortage of fun in the sun on the beach
375: Your cup of tea
Tea time in Tokyo
MAY
374: No time to waste
Tokyo's mounting problems with garbage
373: Freetown
Tokyo's stylish suburb, Jiyugaoka
372: Broken record
Tokyo's ecclectic array of record stores
371: Bottoms up
Tokyo's finest martini bars
APRIL
370: Admit one
Regulations for foreigners wanting to live and work on Japan
369: After a fashion
Spring trends from the catwalks to the streets
368: Bandwidth wagon
Japan's move towards DSL
367: Just for sports
How to play ball this summer
MARCH
366: Life's a hitch
Helpful hints for hitch hiking in Japan
365: Altered state
Try Tokyo's tailors on for size
364: The Fringe Club
Shinjuku's infamous Golden Gai bar district
363: Take two Tomatos
Design gurus Michael Horsham and Steve Baker
362: Stage left
Innovative and intimate shogekijo (little theaters)
FEBRUARY
361: The lowdown on TC
Everything you ever wanted to know about TC, but were afraid to ask
360: A reversal of fortune
Tokyo's home of racing, Fuchu Racecourse
359: Funny Valentine
How to do Valentine's Day in Japan
358: Two-faced
Heartthrob Katsunori Takahashi
JANUARY
357: Read all about it
Amazon.com comes to Japan
356: Daikanyama
Central Tokyo's hippest hood
355: Wash out
Heaven Sento
354: Means to an end
Some good ideas to inspire you
352/3: Last Laugh
TC's rosey re-cap of the year
Signs of the times
Horoscopes for 2001
351: It's a wrap
TC's holiday gift tips
350: Cable ready
Cable and satellite broadcasting renaissance

ISSUES 349-
ISSUES 299-
ISSUES 249-

Also check MINI FEATURES
Shimokitazawa

Honda Theater
2-10-15 Kitazawa, Setagaya-ku. Tel: 03-3468-0030
2/27-3/11 - Kato Kenichi Office's "Ginmaku no Mukoni"
3/14-4/1 - Otona Keiko's "Eros no Hate"

The Suzunari Theater
1-45-15 Kitazawa, Setagaya-ku. Tel: 03-3469-0511
3/14-3/20 - Dobutsu Denki "Chihojichigeki-Hakobe Omoimono o Kitae"

Shimokitazawa Ekimae Theater
Pelmo Bldg. 3F, 2-11-8 Kitazawa, Setagaya-ku. Tel: 03-3424-3755.
3/9-3/11 Torikeratops "Tanabota no Vekutoru"
3/14-18 Itamaki "Star Trek"

Geki-Shogekijo
2-6-6 Kitazawa, Setagaya-ku. Tel: 03-3466-0020
3/21-3/25 - Delicious Monkey Brother's "Nobita no Daiboken"

Elsewhere

The Komaba Agora Theater
1-11-13 Komaba, Meguro-ku. Tel: 03-3469-9107
(Agora's 13th and final End-of-Millennium Theater Festival ends on March 21. See listings for details.)

Die Pratze
2-12, Nishi-Gokencho, Shinjuku-ku. Tokyo Tel: 03-3235-7990
3/13-14 Kagurazaka Smap Centai "Natsu no yoru no Yume"

Sotetsu Honda Theater-Yokohama
Sotetsu Mobile 3F, 2-1-22 Minamisaiwai, Nishi-ku, Yokohama-shi. Tel: 045-319-2150.
3/12 -Office Project M "Uchusen no Mieru Yotsukaido"
3/16-18 - Hybrid Project "Shake"

Sunshine Theatre
3-1-4 Higashi-Ikebukuro, Toshima-ku Tel:03-3987-5281
3/22-4/1 - "Sailor Moon: The Muscial"

Kinokuniya-Hall
3-17-7 Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku. Tel: 03-3354-0141
3/1-3/23 - Komatsuza "Nakimushi, Namaiki Ishikawa Takuboku"
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