|Scenes from a recent production of
Oriza Hirata's play, Balkan Zoo
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.
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
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
Scene from the
French production of Hirata's Tokyo Notes
Courtesy of Seinenden Theatre Company
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
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.
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
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.